I decided to go abroad for the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I applied and got accepted into a community service program with Putney Student Travel. My destination was Vietnam. Half of my time there was spent building a house for an underprivileged family in the tiny town of Tinh Hoa, located a few kilometers for My Lai in central Vietnam. The rest of the time was spent exploring Hanoi, Sapa, and Halong Bay in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
There were seventeen kids in the program, and we split up into three groups to build houses for three deserving families. The family of my worksite was a mother, father, grandmother, a young boy, and a baby girl. As the six of us in my group rode our bikes to worksite 1 on our first day, I was bursting with excitement. I wanted to get something out of Vietnam, something beyond knowledge of the country. I wanted to accomplish something for myself, to gain the feeling of making a difference. Although I didn’t know it yet, that feeling was achieved by building the house.
We came equipped with our sunscreen, bugs spray, Nalgenes, work gloves, bandanas, our planks and spades, and anything else we thought we might need or could fit in our backpacks. But nothing could really prepare me for what I was about to do. Then I saw the house and became determined as ever. It didn’t seem possible to me that a family of five could live there. The family at was living under tarp that was held up by bamboo. There were about six vertical logs of bamboo with probably six or seven logs laying on top, with two or three blue tarps stretched over them. All sides were completely open. But hope was about twenty feet away. Hope was the actual, legitimate house we were going to build for them.
With communicating via gestures, since none of us spoke Vietnamese, the Vietnamese workers began teaching us how to make cement to lay the foundation of the house. We were told to work hard and prove we were diligent, and I wanted to. Just carrying buckets of cement twenty feet to where the house was being built was enough to make my arms burn. I carried bucket after bucket, each one requiring more energy while the sun beat the strength out of me. The humidity filled my lungs and pores and caused me to sweat in places I didn’t know were possible. The sun sucked up my will to move with each passing hour as it climbed higher into the sky. But we survived until the end of the day, barely making it back to the guesthouse before we collapsed off our bikes.
Worksite 1 became our home in those thirteen days. We worked on every aspect of construction: the foundation, brick laying, cementing the walls, and painting. We completed each step of the process. As hard as it was to build, as hot as it was during the day, and how exhausted we were at night, it was all worth it when we saw the finished product. Our simple one story, three-roomed house was the greatest thing in the world to me. Seeing the house completed accomplished what I wanted to get out of the trip. I achieved the experience of a lifetime. I made connections with people of a culture so unlike my own. I gained a feeling of greater good; I could see the change I made. It made me realize how much I made a difference in this family’s life and how much Vietnam made a difference in mine.
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