Amanda Newcomb at the Kuching affiliate office.
Amanda Newcomb didn’t know she would find herself in the wilds of Borneo towards the end of her 4-month internship with Habitat for Humanity (HfH) affiliate office in Singapore. When the chance to go and work in Kuching came unexpectedly, she jumped at it.
“I enjoyed working with the people at the Singapore office, but I was missing the fieldwork.” she told PostMag. “According to the office, there are no homeless issues there so I spent most of it working with data.”
Newcomb admitted that it was hard to be in a strange country so far away from home.
“I didn’t know anyone in Singapore, so I didn’t have any friends the first month I was there.” she recalled. “It was hard. I’m used to talking to my mum everyday, and I had to limit it to once a week here.”
Her door out of the office and into the field came when she met Kuching-based attorney James Lo, who is very much involved with the local HfH efforts.
“James suggested that I come over to Kuching to see what Habitat is doing there, get some experience in fieldwork, work closely with the selection process, and interact with the home partners.” she said.
The 28-year old graduate student is close to finishing her masters in Social Studies at Boston College, but that was not what she originally signed up for.
“I was studying something else in school. Then I had the chance to do some volunteer work, teaching English to children in Somalia. I got absorbed into their lives.”
It was the moment when the big-hearted Newcomb knew what she wanted to do with her life.
Her one week in Kuching proved to be an eye-opener. Being able to meet the people that the organisation is serving makes all the difference, and strengthens Newcomb’s sense of purpose.
“The knowledge and understanding of the purpose and need for HfH that I was able to gain in the few days since my arrival has been greater than I ever anticipated. I have been able to meet past, present and future home partners. To be able to meet and interact with the people we are serving instead of sitting in an office reading about them makes a huge difference in my commitment to HFH. ”
Seeing the actual living conditions of their potential home partners also hammered home how different life is for people living at the outer fringes of the low income group.
“I think it’s important to go out and see who we are impacting.” Newcomb said. “Seeing the living conditions can be a shock. It’s hard to comprehend how people can live like this.”
This international volunteer also saw for herself how important HfH is to the community, not just Kuching’s but on a worldwide level.
“I know that many Global Village volunteers state how they felt they gained much more from the experience than they were able to contribute. Thus far, my time in Kuching has made me understand and also feel that as well. ”
Her days in the field found her under the hot sun somewhere in Taman Desa Wira together with architects from DNA, an award winning local firm, twisting wires to position steel reinforcement bars for concrete support posts. They were building a house for the family of Law Moi Nui. There is an interesting story behind this and Newcomb relates it to PostMag.
“Mrs. Law saw that her neighbour’s house was on fire. She went and pulled everyone out.”
Dapat Ajek’s family escaped with their lives, but lost everything in the fire. They were put up at the community hall, until HfH Kuching got in touch with him and offered their assistance.
“While building Dapat’s new house, they came to know about Mrs. Law and she did for them.” Newcomb explained. “Mrs. Law and her husband work very hard, but do not have the income to support their four daughters or own a proper home. HfH decides to build them a house as well.”
While Newcomb toiled under her farmer’s hat that day, Mrs. Law arrived and joined her at wire twisting duties.
“She was much better at everything too!” Newcomb pointed out.
But meeting and working with the home partner was the best part of the day. Since neither spoke the other person’s language, the trick and the joy was being able to communicate without using words.
At some point, Newcomb mentioned the home partner’s sweat equity hours.
“The home partners are required to contribute 400 hours of ‘sweat equity’. They work alongside the volunteers in building their new house.”
She also pointed out that the new house is not a handout.
“It’s a hand up.” she emphasised. “The people we help still have to be able to pay HfH back for the house. There is a lot of trust vested in the home partners to repay.”
For the low income group, repaying HfH is a more doable option to never being able to afford anything else, and never being able to climb out of the hole they are in.
Newcomb is impressed with the Kuching affiliate and the people who make up the local HfH community.
“There are only two full time staff (Office Manager Angelina Tong and Construction Supervisor Eric Yap). The rest are all volunteers.”
These volunteers band together to make sure Newcomb’s stay is informative and enjoyable – from helping her get immersed in the HfH work in Kuching, to making sure she gets out and experience Sarawak as well.
“It’s nice to come here and see a new culture.” she said.
At Sarakraf Pavilion learning about local crafts
from General Manager Gerald Goh.
Home partners here are equally astounded to see the lone American among the volunteers.
“One of the home partners spoke a little English and asked me where I’m from. When I said “The US” he was so surprised.”
Although HfH is a Christian organisation, they make no distinction between race, religion and all the things some people like to draw their judgement on. Home partners are chosen based on their level of need, their willingness to be partners in the programme, and their ability to repay the no-interest loan. Volunteers come from all walks of life.
“I’m not a religious person.” Newcomb stated. “You don’t have to be religious to volunteer at Habitat. You do it because it’s a humane, compassionate thing to do.”
Because HfH Kuching draws much of its manpower from volunteers, there will never be such a thing as “enough help today”.
“The challenge is trying to raise awareness in Kuching about who we are and what we do.” Newcomb added. She hopes to see more companies investing some of their Corporate Social Responsibility time into the organisation.
“It’s a great way to team build.”
Newcomb feels that she gained a lot from visiting Kuching. As she heads back to graduate, she won’t forget everything she experienced here. In fact, she thinks that her fellow Social Studies students should look into paying Sarawak a visit.
“I want to help promote Kuching as an international volunteer destination.” she said. “I’ve learned so much about Habitat as an organisation while in Kuching. Everyone has been such good mentors. They have given me so much more than what I can give back to them.”
For more information on how you (and your company, church or school) can get involved with Habitat for Humanity, contact the Kuching affiliate at 082-242700. You can also visit the HfH blog or the online community to see how you can help.
Originally published in The Borneo Post’s PostMag, 4 May 2008.