HABITAT FOR HUMANITY Constructive summer: building homes
The volunteers lived in accommodations devoid of running water and electricity.
By LAURA MILOSER
NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. -- "How I spent my summer vacation" is often a common story topic among students and staff when schools open in the fall.
However, teachers and pupils at Wilmington Area Elementary School might have a hard time topping the story of Principal George Leidigh.
He spent his two-week summer vacation on a Habitat for Humanity team, building houses in Papua New Guinea.
He learned about the International Global Village-Habitat for Humanity project on the Internet and decided to apply. He said the staff at the Habitat main office carefully reviews each application to ensure there is a good blend of people to carry out the task.
To take part in this mission of mercy, Leidigh had to suffer a bit himself: He had to receive vaccinations for typhoid and hepatitis A and B; he also had to take malaria pills; finally, he had to travel 23 hours by airplane to Lae, New Guinea.
Eleven people from the United States, an Australian and eight college students from a college in Lae made up the group he was with, he said.
The visit began with a two-day orientation. The group was briefed about what it would be doing, the people and the language.
The group's journey to the village where the houses would be built began with a two-hour ride in an open truck sitting on benches.
"We had to use duct tape to keep the benches from moving," he chuckled. The truck took the group up a mountain, through rivers and streams.
The group then had to carry their luggage over a swinging footbridge.
Members of the local tribe met the group at the end of the bridge where they helped them on a 45-minute walk up the hillside.
Leidigh said that before entering the village, members of the tribe performed a native song and dance and presented the group with hand-made leis of fresh flowers.
"I felt protected while we were there. ... it was like they [the tribe] had us under their wing," Leidigh said.
The food consisted mainly of rice and white potatoes. "They fed us well. Someone from the group asked about pineapple, and the next day fresh pineapple was at the meal, " he said.
The group built two homes during its seven-day stay. A total of 1,000 homes have been built in New Guinea by Habitat for Humanity. Leidigh said the frame homes would last an average of 30 years. The homes built by the local people out of palm leaves generally last just three years.
A portable sawmill was transported up the mountain. The volunteers were asked to bring some of their own hand tools. The wood from three trees was used to build the two houses.
Leidigh said he and a third-grade teacher from Connecticut had the opportunity to teach a lesson at the local school.
They taught geography, cultural differences and some English words, sometimes using sign language. Leidigh said that the school's books and charts were in English, and were provided by the Australian government. New Guinea was ruled by Australia until 1975.
The children were polite and well mannered and asked a lot of questions, Leidigh said.
There is a shortage of substitute teachers in New Guinea. Leidigh said he was amazed to see how well-mannered a class of first graders behaved without any adult supervision. He was told that if a substitute is not available, the children are left reading and interacting quietly with each other.
Leidigh said the school was simple with no electricity or running water (just like the accommodations for the Humanity group). He noted that the students didn't have the distractions of television, telephones or other electronics. They were able to spend time with each other, he said.
Leidigh said the church service was a beautiful experience. "The people sang a capella, singing with commitment to what they were doing. They gave so much of themselves to the music, singing as loud as they could."
The day the group left the village, 30 to 40 members of the local tribe lined the walkway down the mountainside. This didn't surprise Leidigh because of the way the villages had treated his group during its stay, " The people were so friendly, hospitable and gracious."
So much so that Leidigh said he'd consider going on a similar working vacation in the future.