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Sichuan Earthquake: Rebuilding & Volunteering


Many adoptive families remember vividly the devastation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And many of you reached out to give to families devastated by the tragedy.

This past December, Habitat for Humanity International Volunteer Mobilization  Leader, Norman Clearfield lead a team of 14 volunteers to serve in the earthquake affected area near  Chengdu, Sichuan.  He shared his perspective with Lotus Travel newsletter editor, Iris Culp, recently via phone from his Americus Georgia office.  He shared his “on the ground” experience from last month in which he and his team assisted the rebuilding there.

Norman begins by sharing,  “The scope of the disaster is hard to imagine. An estimated 70,000 people were killed by the quake; and between 10 and 15 million people were left without housing.”  Norman in explaining the overall development that this team was working on says “In dealing with any situation in China that involves people, the numbers are just hard for the American mind to get around—it’s a massive development that we worked on. The size of the earthquake affected an area of about 400,000 square kilometers, which is similar to the size of the country of Iraq.”    He continues on, “on a personal level the trip is about a message, “We are here to serve and help.”  He recounts the personal nature of the work and the ongoing level of commitment needed for anyone working in China.  He says, “Many of the workers rebuilding, that we worked alongside had lost family members in the quake.  Us showing up to assist and serve them in their works is a way of saying “We care about you and your family.”  That’s what these trips are about.

Norman says that previous construction experience is not generally required for these type of trips. However a willingness to serve and be flexible to the needs of the project once on site are important.  He says, “I screen my team members so they don’t have unrealistic expectations about what to achieve and expect.  Our most important responsibility while volunteering is to serve the local people in whatever way we can that is most helpful for them. It’s not about our agenda, it’s about theirs”.

Norman continued to share his personal impressions and impact of the trip on him personally, “The Chinese people were incredibly gracious.  The food was “off the charts” fantastic in the local area.  Everything is fresh and we felt like we were so welcome there – we formed friendships among the local people. There was so much warmth and kind hospitality that we encountered in just everyday interactions.”  We made friends in the restaurant where we ate everyday; there was a bakery just across the street, which shows in the photo. We felt so fortunate -- it was a great spot.”   Also, he shares his team felt incredibly welcomed and appreciated, as the mayor of the nearby district and her team drove one hour each way to present them with a gift as well as recognition and thanks for coming and assisting the local workers in the rebuilding effort.  He shares “I was just blown away by that – an hour drive each way, to come and thank us and give us a small gift – It was so gracious, really.”

He shares that in the nearby village, there was a key bridge which was destroyed during the quake.  Although a new one has been built the devastated bridge remains as a memorial, and signage has been erected.  The symbol “5 12” is there to memorialize the date of the earthquake -- May 12th.   His team was fortunate to be able to visit the bridge memorial and took a group photo at the site.

He continues, “What is just awe inspiring was the response of the Chinese people to our team.  Here we were-- a handful of people by their standards--14 of us, who had come in to assist them.  The Chinese people we encountered were incredibly gracious.  I feel like we received so much more than we were able to give.”   We worked alongside the workers who do these jobs, such as bricklaying, for 10 -12 hours per day for six days per week.  While it is easy to be on the job for a week or so, and think about ways to increase the workload and work harder, we respect the local people doing the work, and truly try to approach the situation as coming alongside to help.  We are not working 12 hour days 6 days per week laying brick for more than a year.  These people are--- we must respect the pace they set and that these will be homes for their families.”

He said that upon arriving at the site and receiving his assignment, he encountered an unexpected humorous situation.  He chuckles as he recall that when he was assigned to move brick via a wheel barrow, his compatriot in building was a 60+ year old Chinese woman, spoke with great agitation and protested vehemently.  This job involved filling wheelbarrows full of bricks and wheeling them to a nearby lift for transport up to the second floor.

Norman asked for an interpreter and found out the 60 year old woman was concerned that Norman was much too old for the job and was concerned he would hurt himself. He chuckled when he realized what she was protesting, since he was pretty certain she was older than he.  Through an interpreter he assured her that he would be just fine.  He said, “This is just one of the unexpected interactions we had while there.  I found the Chinese people to be incredibly kind and gracious” as he continued to laugh as he recalled the incident.  

During July 2010, Lotus Travel and Habitat for Humanity International will be coordinating a week of cultural touring combined with a week of volunteering on site in Sichuan. Click: http://www.lotustours.net/travel/heritage/Habitat_Lotus_Volunteer_trip.jsp for details if you would like to know more about this special tour.

Norm will be the leader for this return trip to the Sichuan earthquake area.  This July  trip will combine elements of a cultural touring trip, followed by basic hotel accommodations during the volunteer week as people work on rebuilding in the community.   Both Norman Clearfield, and Patrick Ettampola, Global Village Specialist for Asia and the Pacific,  at Habitat for Humanity, are pleased to offer the opportunities for teens and families to volunteer internationally. Norman says, “It is such a meaningful opportunity and time to connect with the people of China – It’s will be great to lead another team to return to this area.”

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