Monday 14 September 2009

Home is where the hard work is

So I've been to Liverpool to do the build and have just written it up for our work magazine. I'm going to post the article here as right now all I need/want is sleep, apologies for the slightly more journalistic style but have triple checked & everything is included :-)

It’s 1am on a Saturday morning and myself & two friends from work are stood at a windswept Park and Ride in Oxford waiting for a minibus containing colleagues from our London offices. The obvious question is: why?

To answer this, I must go back to a few months earlier, to a fairly average Thursday afternoon when an email came round work. The email asked for volunteers to help with an ongoing project for ‘Habitat for Humanity’, a charity that, using donated funds and (as we are about to experience first-hand) donated labour, helps people all over the world to literally build themselves a better future.

But that is all to come; first we have to get there. Habitat currently has two UK sites, the closest to the Oxford and London offices being one in Southwalk, but unfortunately for us no work is going on there at the moment so it’s all hands (and bodies attached to them) to Liverpool).

After a long drive and a couple of snatched hours sleep in a service-station car park (during which there was definitely snoring, from who is a debate still raging). We pick up a final recruit from the Manchester office at Liverpool station and arrive to a warm greeting by Sarah and her team at the site. We are taken into the site office and while we eat breakfast the rest of the permanent team arrive. Two of the staff (William Walsh, Construction Manager, & Paul Taylor, who is Health & Safety, Construction Co-ordinator) are employed permanently by Habitat for Humanity to supervise the volunteers and offer their expertise on the build. As well as these employees there are also regular local volunteers such as Jessica Meikle, Michael Otchie, Fabienne Matthews & Neil Wilks. Michael & Jess are architects & Neil is a building surveyor. They all initially started volunteering to gain some hands-on experience on site. And Fabienne & Neil help out as team leaders on team build-days like today. Last but not least in the teams are the home-owners themselves. Instead of putting down a cash deposit the potential homeowners instead complete five-hundred hours on their own and neighbours’ homes and the charity provides an interest-free loan to cover the cost of the build. Today we are joined by Chiz and our nerves mount as we find out his house is one of the ones we will be working on (no room for error then).
After breakfast we are given a quick tour of one of the houses which is nearing completion. It is stunning and half the team want to move in! But enough of the admiration, the hard work starts here. Paul gives us a health and safety briefing as well as some quick safety advice and tips on handling tools. As soon as the briefing is over we are sent off to don protective clothing and grab our tools. We are split up into three groups; the blue team and the white team will be working on the first level of the scaffold on the sides of the house, attaching damp-proofing course where sections of wood overlap and fixing exterior cladding to retain heat and protect the wood frame. The red team are on the next level up, getting on with the walls directly below the roof.

At first, everyone is a bit cautious, especially one of the girls on my team, Adora, who doesn’t like heights. The regular team are however great, helping us out by suggesting easier ways of doing things whilst still giving us room to work things out for ourselves. My revelatory moment comes when I start getting my screws in straight (and not a moment too soon as Chiz is stood watching me; “this is the one you’ve got to get right” he grins, and I think I’m probably more nervous than he is to be honest).

The morning flies by and soon the klaxon for lunch has sounded. A few of the team have to be dragged away from their bits of wood but lunch provides a great chance for everyone to chat about what they’ve been doing and also to get to know each other and the team in Liverpool a bit better. One of the residents who is already living in her HFH house has made some fantastic hearty fare and Sarah’s been busy in the kitchen too – it’s just what we need.

The hour is soon over and everyone sets about their task with renewed vigour. The afternoon sees us get a lot more done as everyone knows what they are doing and has a lot fewer questions to ask, as well as gaining a lot more confidence in their own abilities. The once height-terrified Adora is now striding about like she was to the scaffold born. All too soon it’s time to down tools for the day. As we stand back and admire our handiwork I can’t help wishing we had longer here; what HFH are doing is so vital I just wish we could have finished it for them. Despite this we are all presented with a certificate proclaiming our achievements and a photo signed by the team of us working hard (or in the red team’s case rocking YMCA chic).

We wish a fond farewell to the team and head off for some dinner at one of the local restaurants. It’s a further chance for the different offices to interact but looking around the table you would never believe that we only met this morning. Even though everyone is pretty tired there is a smile on every face. Dinner over we wave goodbye to Liverpool and start the long drive home. Sarah drives as far as Oxford and then Emeka takes over for the final leg back to London. By the time I get home I realise I’ve been awake for 22 hours, but my experience in Liverpool will stay with me far longer than the current feeling of tiredness.

HFH are a brilliant charity with some really great people working with them. I would urge everyone reading this to volunteer for them, I know the party that went definitely have plans to return and for me the time can’t come soon enough. For more information please visit

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