Love thy neighbor as thyself is a lesson that precedes the New Testament, but it's one that the world can continue to learn from.
In late October, a group of 140 Australians put that lesson into practice in a way that will affect the lives of dozens of families for decades to come. Those Australians — accompanied by two Americans and a token German — spent a week volunteering in Srunggo, a rural sub-village outside Yogyakarta, Indonesia. They were there on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, building 12 homes for 12 families from the village.
Volunteers on this particular trip varied wildly in age, socioeconomic background and motivation for being there. Holly Otto, who came to Indonesia with her mom, was there celebrating her 16th birthday. Not exactly what you imagine when you think of a sweet sixteen.
"It's just so much more rewarding," Otto said. "What do you get out of having a party? I'm learning so much more here than any other 16-year-old will by getting drunk for a night."
Like all of the volunteers, Otto raised 1,500 Australian dollars (or about $1,100 U.S.) for her trip. Then she had to pay her way to Indonesia. Otto pulled together most of the money by selling chocolates at her high school. Her funds, and those of the other 139 volunteers, went to Habitat for Humanity to pay for building supplies, provide jobs for local laborers, employ site managers who perform important duties like translation, and teach families who wouldn't otherwise know how to change light bulbs and maintain their new homes.
Some of the funds in Srunggo also went to a community center where they installed running water and constructed 10 bathrooms and sinks to wash hands.
Habitat for Humanity's goal in this village and much of southeast Asia is pretty straightforward: give people a hand up, not a handout, through sustainable long-term housing. Srunggo is a perfect example of how this model can succeed.
Photo: Habitat for Humanity Australia
The value of sustainable housing
The village is tucked into the jungle hills 45 minutes from Yogyakarta, the nearest city. It's a windy drive that ends in steep dirt and gravel roads, which split off into various little collections of homes. Srunggo is a stark reminder of the poverty many Indonesian families face in 2016. There are 270 million people living in Indonesia, and 40 percent of them make less than $2 a day. For the 6,000 Indonesians living in Srunggo, that money is enough to eat, raise a couple of children and keep a clay or straw roof over their heads.
But those roofs and the dirt floors do little to hold back the heavy rains that pass through the jungle in the rainy season. They certainly can't hold up against the earthquakes that have devastated this part of the world in the last decade.
So when it rains, most of the villagers' homes will fill with water, which can contribute to the spread of disease. That disease can put farmers out of work or keep children from going to school, which — in families that oftentimes have a single source of income — can be a devastating blow. Rain is just one of the many dangers for homes like the ones in Srunggo.
And this makes sustainable homes all the more valuable.
"If you can get improved housing at scale, you then actually have the ability of people to look after it and understand it," Martin Thomas, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Australia, told A Plus. "One of the tenets of Habitat is that people will contribute to it some way."
Before receiving a home, a family has to apply to the chief of the village. They are asked to explain how having a home will increase their productivity, or why they have a particular need for it. Many of the homes go to widows or families planning to house extended family and children that are able-bodied and can work, or people that have faced challenges like injury and disease.
The 6,000 villagers in Srunggo get water in two ways: by collecting rain or climbing a steep hill where they retrieve water from a limestone cave. The limestone actually serves as a natural filter, making the water drinkable, and many families run hoses as long as three miles from the cave to their homes.
That water was almost as pure as the intentions of the volunteers who spent their own time, money and effort to get to Srunggo and be a part of the build.
The volunteers who make it happen
For most, the lifestyle lived in Srunggo and other parts of rural Indonesia was very different from back home.
Suze DeMarchi, the lead vocalist and guitar player for the famous Australian rock band Baby Animals, was one of the volunteers and a key part of spreading word about the build. She'd previously worked with Habitat for Humanity in San Pedro, California, and recruited volunteers through her band's Facebook page and by doing a few press spots for the build. Even though DeMarchi came short of her goal to recruit 300 people and build 30 houses, she was plenty encouraged by seeing 140 people show up to build 12 new homes.
When it was all said and done, $200,000 was raised, 4,000 family members and friends donated, over 13,200 bricks were laid and more than 231 tons of cement were used.
"It's the kind of experience that you have that really changes your life and what you complain about," DeMarchi said. "You can't really ever explain it so someone, they have to see it."
DeMarchi took special joy in seeing younger people like Otto there, and said that when her son — who, at 14, was too young to come — was old enough next year, he'd be there with her on a build.
Elinor Bradbury, DeMarchi's good friend who helped spur her involvement, had a more tumultuous path to Srunggo than most.
After her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Bradbury sold their house to pay for his medical expenses and then raised thousands of dollars to fulfill his bucket list dream of traveling around the world. She got a hand from some high-profile people like Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, who she had worked with to promote previous humanitarian work.
Before she lost her husband, he told her she'd have to do something really significant to say thank you to those that had helped. At a charity fundraiser for his trip, another widow she had met told her the only way was to pay it forward.
That advice led her to Habitat for Humanity.
"It planted the seed for me, where I had been through this experience of receiving overwhelming charity," Bradbury said. "His parting wish was to share that wisdom to his own boys and encourage them to live a bigger life."
Photo: Habitat for Humanity Australia
It wouldn't be the last time Bradbury found herself among people chasing their bucket list, either. The Habitat for Humanity build in Srunggo, dubbed Rock The House, found a partner in the social dream platform BUCKiTDREAM. It's a platform that encourages people to share their bucket lists, and they noticed that an increasing number of people have social or charitable works as their wishes. So they partnered up with Habitat for Humanity and orchestrated a giveback campaign where people could get involved. (They also flew me in to Indonesia so that I could report on the trip's success.)
There were an eclectic mix of stories: a landscaper who was recruited by a woman whose house he worked on, a German girl who knew Otto through a study abroad program, a 16-year-old boy who was filming the trip, a woman who had just beaten breast cancer, and even a man who was born in Indonesia and returning for the first time since he was a young boy. Habitat for Humanity runs on volunteers, and they're needed not just in Asia, but all over the world.
Their presence in Indonesia also represents a larger shift in focus that is happening in Habitat for Humanity and several humanitarian groups. For a decades, poverty-focused aid has been most common in Africa, but now these groups are realizing — and addressing — the need for aid in Asia.
The impact of Habitat for Humanity in Srunggo
Thanks to a lack of economic opportunity, two people a second are moving from rural areas into cities throughout Asia, which has left an incomprehensible 550 million people living in slums — a figure one Habitat for Humanity official told me they expect to hit 840 million by 2020.
As a result, every single day, there is a shortage of about 20,000 houses. That's an enormous number, but one Habitat for Humanity is getting ready to tackle. The organization has already supported about 1.5 million people in the Asia-Pacific region, and they're hoping to ramp up improved housing efforts for 15 million more in the next five years.
The cost to build a home like the ones in Srunggo was about $3,000. Since many of the people being served in Srunggo live off of less than $2 a day, the houses they receive are donated through a grant. In other places, families are required to pay back a portion or all of the house over a period of time, but these families — selected by the local chief — will not incur any debt by accepting the home.
Interestingly, the build itself doesn't just create long-term benefits, it also has an immediate impact on the village. Local laborers receive a wage for helping out in the build, and they bring along with them young apprentices who get to gain experience and skills while putting up a home in the village in which they live.
Photo: Habitat for Humanity Australia
At one site, the family who was granted a home had a particularly harrowing story. Subsarti, a 37-year-old mother, was trapped in their house after it collapsed on top of her during an earthquake years before. Her kitchen caught on fire, leaving her with visible scars. It also left her unable to walk for nearly seven years.
Her situation was so dire that her husband Paradiyoni carried her on his back when she needed to go places. They managed through the health issues while raising their two children — who at the time of the build were 19 and 4 years old. Subsarti has since recovered, and the build represented another major milestone for her family.
Paradiyoni and Subsarti smiled widely as they watched a group of strangers from all over the world arrive in their backyard and erect, almost to completion, a brand new home made of cement and brick. During a teary-eyed ceremony in which the volunteers handed the house over to Paradiyoni and Subsarti, the family apologized to the team that built their home, as they wished they could give them something in return.
Tyson Johns, one of the volunteers, told them they already had.
"You cannot put a value on the love, affection and bond you have given us, complete strangers who you allowed into your home," he said. "We will have this bond with you forever."
Want to get involved? Check out how you can by going to Habitat for Humanity's website.
Check out the video below to learn more about BUCKiTDREAM: