Why I want to be a Grandmother

27Oct11

Building for Habitat for Humanity!

I’ve been thinking about blogging about this subject for a long time, since when I first met Mary Lea, a grandmother on a volunteer trip 4 years ago this month. Coming out of university and writing the most difficult exam I had ever written in my life (UFE qualifying exam for Chartered Accountants in Canada – 13 hours over 3 days) I decided to volunteer abroad, outside of my home country for the very first time. I signed up for a Habitat for Humanity build in their Global Village program to Chile. Habitat for Humanity builds on all continents in the world and is a nonprofit housing charity. Its goal is to eliminate poverty housing and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat for Humanity invites volunteers of all backgrounds, races, religions to build houses together in partnership with families in need.

There were a few reasons why I wanted to volunteer for Habitat and build social housing in Chile. First, it allowed me to step out of the examination hall and head straight to the airport to fly away to a new land where nobody knew of the UFE exam. I did not want to talk about the exam, think about the exam or face other writers and talk about how hard it was and how low the annual pass rate is. Second, it allowed me to visit a whole new continent – South America! And thirdly, I wanted to be surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about my exam and pass or fail, it would not change their perception of me or the work that I did. At the end of the day, an exam is just an exam – but a Habitat build is an experience – and life is better lived through memories of good work than exams 🙂

Prior to signing up to do a Habitat build abroad, I had volunteered a few times in Canada through corporate “volunteer days” at work. It was great fun! we got to build in Canada with local families and sometimes even coworkers.  Build sites would be full of volunteers from all backgrounds (usually not construction…) and be supervised by patient foremen and professional builders. But the global village build was even better than I imagined! Not only did we build all day for 3 weeks with the same group of people, we ate breakfast,lunch and dinner together – as well as bunked together in the local village: Casablanca, Chile.

Our group in Chile was split into 3 different build sites – with about 4-5 people in each. And it was in my work group that I was paired with my “Build Buddy” – Grandmother Mary Lea. And oh wow, could she build like a pro! She had volunteered continuously with Habitat for Humanity in the United States and had also done a few abroad trips – she was a veteran! First thing she did was to teach me how to hammer! (yes, being a life-long city girl, hammering did not come as a natural skill…) 4-inch nails were no match for Mary Lea, she could pound them with one hit! (truthfully, it took me about 3-4 hits and at the same time.. and trying constantly not to hit myself!) It was extremely useful to have a veteran on the small build site because the Foreman supervisor only spoke Spanish! Miming action is a lot easier when you at least have a clue of the basics. Again, thank goodness for Mary Lea’s common sense and practical building know-how.  During these build days Mary Lea would talk a lot about her grandchildren and share photos… she always thought of them. Her husband was also on the same Chile team with us (but at another build site) – and when the whole team gathered for dinner at night, she would help get some ice and help him ease his joints. They are an extraordinary couple. Prior to retirement, they were high school teachers to inner-city Chicago schools and in retirement, they are helping build communities around the world!

In my early-20s I never thought much about the future, what having family would be like or what activities to do in retirement days! Having completed undergraduate studies at a business school, “skills development” was pretty career focused and not so much in family skills. But ever since meeting Mary Lea I knew I wanted to be like her (and hammer like her!). She was such an inspiration! The way she lived her life and continues to contribute to an ever-changing globalised world.

So today, on your birthday Mary Lea – I want to pay tribute to you in this blog! I currently do not have a photo of our Chile build (didn’t have a digital camera back then), but I hope his photo from Habitat Malaysia will do.

I have also  come across a few more inspirational grandmothers lately:

– My supervisor, Elizabeth is a grandmother of two, and I can see the change in her – she is visibly glowing. I will always remember her quote, when I asked her “How are you?” after her second grandchild and she said “I am really happy. When you pick the baby up in your arms, it’s unbelievable, it’s like their yours all over again”.

– I sat next to Marnie at a formal dinner recently – a former french teacher and a grandmother filled with an adventurous spirit and a love for India.

– Italian “Nan” who at age 90 works a blackberry and blackberry messenger like a 15 year-old teenager and uploads photos and emails with her grandson continuously. brilliant!

To #grandmothers worldwide: Thank YOU for your wisdom, love and inspiration. You’ve seen it all…!

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