Giving Space a Face: Habitat for Humanity Vietnam and the Face of Reconciliation


Habitat for Humanity Vietnam is about people.  It’s about changing lives—about facing the fact of poverty and believing we can make a difference.

Poverty housing in Vietnam (photo by Kathy McCullough)

For the people employed at Habitat Vietnam, for those who volunteer, those who donate and those whose lives are changed—this work is personal—profoundly personal.  It’s about more than building houses; it’s about building homes, about building hope.  It’s about giving space a face.

Yet the face of poverty housing in Vietnam is being changed by the efforts of folks like Le Cao Minh (Deputy National Director for Habitat Vietnam), who is visiting America during February, sharing with those of us in the US, not only the needs Habitat faces in Vietnam, but also, and more importantly, about the people who make change possible.  According to Minh, the challenges faced by Habitat in Vietnam are less about grants and funding than they are about capitalizing on human potential—less about money and more about people—about the human capacity to care and share, to build a better tomorrow from the will and determination of people today.  Minh insists that with the right people, anything is possible—that with the right people funding will come, that with the right people poverty housing can be eliminated.  According to Minh, it’s more about face than it is space—more about people than place—more about human resources than financial capital.

But if Habitat Vietnam is about giving space a face, then who are the faces that represent this place in Southeast Asia, who are the people behind the change, who are the people who energize the mission?

The face of home-ownership (image via http://www.habitatvietnam.org)

Habitat for Humanity began its work in Vietnam in 2001, and in the past ten years has served more than 8,400 families—so, perhaps, the most important faces of Habitat in Vietnam are those whose lives have been improved.  Habitat Resource Centers operate in four locations across the country, from Kien Giang and Ho Chi Minh City in the south, to Quang Nam (near Da Nang) in the center of the country and Hanoi in the far north—

—So families’ lives are better over a vast geographical area, made that way by projects that have:

  • built new homes,
  • renovated existing ones,
  • provided clean water and sanitation,
  • offered livelihood training through its partners,
  • set up micro-finance partnerships,
  • responded to disasters such as Typhoon Ketsana and
  • taught disaster mitigation to local communities.

The face of meaningful work in Da Nang (image via http://www.habitatvietnam.org)

Whether it’s a mother from Da Nang, who now has a cement floor in her home and can for the first time run a small sewing business or a grandfather from Ke Sat, who can now provide his ailing wife with clean water and a toilet—young and old alike benefit from the mission.

The face of Ke Sat Village (photo by Kathy McCullough)

The many faces of Habitat for Humanity Vietnam staff (2011)

And although the faces of Habitat in Vietnam are also those of 48 paid staff, (all but three of whom are Vietnamese nationals) and the faces of corporate and government partners, your face can also make a difference.  And even if you can’t donate financially, you may be able to shop at Habitat ReStores in North America or volunteer your time and labor.

The face of a volunteers in Vietnam (image via http://www.habitatvietnam.org)

More specifically, Habitat in Vietnam offers international volunteers the opportunity to spend two weeks in the country helping to build houses.  Last year Habitat hosted 25 “Global Village” teams to build 50 houses for families in need.  The members of these teams, most of whom have no previous construction experience, not only radically change the lives of the specific family they serve, but they themselves are also changed forever.  (An up-coming trip lasting 16 days cost a mere $1,650 US dollars per person, including meals and hotel, excluding airfare.)

More volunteers (image via http://www.habitatvietnam.org)

When my partner Sara and I lived in Vietnam, I, myself, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, participating in the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project near Hanoi.  And during that volunteer project lives were, indeed, changed.

For example, the most touching moment of the week was when President Carter addressed the crowd in our Ke Sat Village church yard. While the president was talking about his visit being a healing opportunity for our two countries, two veterans of the war (which ended just before Carter’s presidency began) sat side by side in the audience, one American, the other a former member of the North Vietnamese army. As the president spoke of healing and the mending of broken relationships, the two veterans, former enemies, clasped one another’s hands, weeping through the rest of the ceremony—the face of friendship, peace, and mutual respect.

This is, indeed, the face of Habitat for Humanity’s work in Vietnam—the face of reconciliation and the ability of decent, affordable housing to facilitate partnerships, ones that improve the lives of poor and not-so-poor alike, ones that unite rather than divide—that denounce war and celebrate peace.

If you would like to participate in that peace, please visit Habitat for Humanity International’s website and that of Habitat Vietnam, to learn how you, too, can make a difference.

Note:  If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family.  (This post is not part of that series.)  To read one of my mafia-related memoir posts,”Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here.  If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at kownroom@yahoo.com  or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.

38 thoughts on “Giving Space a Face: Habitat for Humanity Vietnam and the Face of Reconciliation

  1. What a great post!!! I love Habitat–have volunteered several times and truly believe in what they do and how their organization helps folks get decent housing while involving them in the process. I loved the picture you took of the “face of Ke Sat Village”. Priceless. Thanks for sharing!!!

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    • Thanks, Beth Ann. How great to hear you have volunteered for Habitat. It’s a powerful experience, as is the organization’s use of sweat equity to help future home-owners qualify for their homes.

      And I’m so happy you liked my photo. I had actually forgotten about it until I did this post and looked back through old files for images to use.

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  2. I loved reading about Minh’s philosophy about improvement in Vietnam (or anywhere really) coming by capitalizing on human potential. Giving people the tools to empower them to succeed seems a better way to address problems to provide fundamental change.
    Thank you for a great and enlightening post. Hugs to you and Sara!

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  3. HABITAT FOR HUMANITY – yes, Yes, YES!

    When I was in the corporate world the company that I worked at built a few homes in the greater Chicagoland area through the Habitat for Humanity program. We rotated department by department, (each employee usually getting two days a month to build) until home by home, they were completed.

    I love the photograph titled “The face of Ke Sat Village.”

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    • Thanks for reading, Laurie. And HOORAY for Habitat’s corporate partners. It’s wonderful when companies are willing to invest time and money in making a difference. Glad to hear you’ve had the experience of builiding. (And I’m tickled to hear you like the photo, as well. You have made my day.)

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  4. I think it’s lovely that this post about this very noble and socially beneficial program has inspired so much enthusiasm and good will in those compelled to comment, but at the risk of sounding like the crepe hanger that I am, this is the sort of cause I’d toss money at (if I had any) than do myself. Plus, no way would I be caught dead wearing one of those pointy hats. Never.

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  5. Habitat is a wonderful organization, Kathy. We worked closely (in the partnership sense) with the local chapter here in Victoria when I was a member of the United Way team.

    What inspires me a lot about HfH is that they work practically *everywhere* around the world. I’m sometimes saddened to see how much people are willing to help “exotic others” while ignoring the exact same issues at home. Poverty and homelessness are worldwide issues– not just in “other countries”.

    Really loved your photos in this post. Great portrait shots!

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    • I agree. Habitat’s domestic program is impressive. It was home-grown in southern Georgia before it ever went anywhere. It’s great to hear you have a connection–and I’m happy you like the photos–though I only did one of the portrait shots myself.

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  6. Habitat in general does great work. My daughter has volunteered for them while in college and has found it so rewarding to help in this way. Love the photos, especially the one of the old woman in the blue sweater. She looks so vibrant and full of character. Thanks for letting us know about the work they’re doing in Vietnam.

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    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Monica. It’s great to hear from you. When I was teaching writing at the University of Kentucky, I did a service learning project with my students that partnered with Habitat. If affected them deeply, as well. Hope to see you again soon.

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  7. I love the photo of the lady in the bright blue sweater! Habitat for Humanity is a good organization and Jimmy Carter is my favorite former president. (The first one I voted for, too, all those years ago…) How fortunate you were to hear him speak in the midst of this community in the process of healing.

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  8. Oh, Kathy!

    Not only is this crisply well-written, it opened up my heart and for that I thank you very much! What a wonderful program! And what wonderful pictures, too.

    Also, put me in the camp of loving Jimmy & Rosalyn. My goodness what sweet, giving, good souls they are.

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    • Gosh, Chrissy, I’m thrilled this post spoke to you. Yes, the Carters are wonderful people–truly delightful. And you even liked the photos and the writing itself. Thanks so much. Hope you have a great weekend, my friend!

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  9. Wonderful post, Kathy! I love Habitat for Humanity and in my Forrest Gump life, I’ve actually met President Carter. I love how you humanized this by showing some of the faces to go with information on how we can help. Wonderful. 🙂

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