This June, 14 student-athletes from Oregon State University will travel with Holt International to build homes for families in Ethiopia. (Photos of the team meeting courtesy of Beavers Without Borders)
by Robin Munro, Senior Writer
On a quiet Sunday in June, one week before final exams, a group of Oregon State University students gather in an elegant room at Reser Stadium, overlooking the football field. Four men and ten women, all of them athletes, take seats at a long table surrounded by a film crew. Three of the students are golfers, one a swimmer. One plays softball, one plays soccer. Two are volleyball players, two are rowers, one’s on the track team, one’s a gymnast and two of the four men play football.
All of these young men and women have joined a group called the Beavers Without Borders, a service organization developed by the OSU athletics department – and named with a clever nod to the renowned international medical service organization, Doctors Without Borders. In lieu of “doctors,” they use the university’s mascot – and Oregon’s state animal – the beaver.
In less then two weeks, the Beavers Without Borders will travel to Ethiopia to build two houses for families in Holt’s family preservation program.
A little bit nervous and a lot excited, the students turn to listen to the Holt staff and team at the end of the table. Before making introductions, Patric Campbell – a Holt adoptive parent traveling on the trip – jumps to his feet and announces that he bets he can name all the athletes at the table. An Oregon State alum himself and avid college sports fan, Patric nails it – naming not just the students, but the administrators as well! Everyone is, by now, laughing and at ease – as much as they can be with a boom microphone and cameras hovering overhead. The Beavers Without Borders plan to create a documentary of the trip, and filming starts today.
With the ice officially broken, Patric begins to explain how the Beavers Without Borders-Holt partnership began one year ago at an airport in Frankfurt, Germany. At the time, Patric was en route home from visiting a hospital Holt is building in Shinshicho, Ethiopia. Traveling with Patric was Larry Carter, Holt’s director of donor relations and the person who truly championed the effort on the Holt side to make this trip with OSU happen. He is also at today’s first team meeting at Reser Stadium.
While in Frankfurt to catch a connecting flight, Patric noticed a group of students wearing Oregon State gear. “I thought, ‘That’s weird. I went to Oregon State,’” he says. Patric struck up a conversation with one of the young men in the group. This young man, it turned out, was Taylor Kavanaugh, the former OSU football player who spearheaded the Beavers Without Borders program. The students, he told Patric, were traveling home from their latest service project, building houses in Macedonia.
They exchanged business cards and parted ways, Patric thinking nothing would likely come of it. “Three days later, I got a phone call,” he says, pausing. “Things happen for a reason. A year later, we’re sitting at this table.”
They Build Houses. Our Families Need Homes.
Since 2008, Holt has worked with community leaders in Ethiopia to help struggling families achieve both stability and self-reliance. In this East African country of roughly 91 million people, an estimated 5 million children are homeless. But many, if not most, of these children are not true orphans. Many children have living parents or relatives, but end up homeless simply because their parents lack the resources to care for them. Through our family preservation program, Holt strives to prevent this from happening.
Holt’s support varies depending on the needs of the family, and may include everything from food and clothing to counseling services and resources needed to send children to school. But ultimately, Holt aims to help families become self-reliant. To that end, Holt provides basic resources for projects that will generate income. For families who have farming land but lack livestock, for example, Holt will provide oxen. Or families without land may receive seed money for a retail business.
In some cases, Holt’s staff in Ethiopia has also built small homes for families living in extremely poor conditions.
This is where Patric Campbell and Larry Carter’s chance encounter with the Beavers Without Borders becomes serendipitous. They build houses. Our families need homes.
After explaining the backstory of the trip, Patric turns to Taylor, who asks the students to go around and introduce themselves. He also asks them to share their motivations for joining the Ethiopia team.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa,” says Alexandra “Allie” Rogers, a freshman volleyball player. “I know it will be life-changing. So I raised the money and here I am.”
“My major is helping people and I love to travel,” says Chloe Steinbeck, who runs track and majors in human development and family science. “I decided to go because this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
The reasons they offer vary from student to student. But in many ways, their actions already speak to a common quality of character.
Some of the students are graduating seniors. Some are just finishing up their freshman year. All face significant demands in time and energy for their athletic commitments as OSU athletes, in addition to their academic responsibilities. For five of their seven full days in Ethiopia – during summer break – they will work in the hot, humid Ethiopian lowlands shaping houses out of mud and dung for two impoverished families. To do this, these 14 young men and women have raised the funds themselves – not only for travel, but also for the resources needed to build the houses. Oh, and it’s just the beginning of rainy season. Did I mention the houses are made of mud?
Needless to say, this won’t – as Taylor quipped early on – be “Ethiopia: Spring Break 2012.” These student-athletes are serious, hard-working and motivated to accomplish the task before them.
As the introductions move around the table, they eventually reach Patric and, seated beside him, Rory Robison – the other adoptive parent traveling to Ethiopia. “Rory’s son and my son were born 15 km from each other and now they live three houses down from each other,” says Patric. When Rory heard about the trip and that Patric was going, he said he’d love to go too, if possible. Both Patric and Rory have traveled to Ethiopia before. They’ve witnessed the tremendous need of the country, as well as the beauty and warmth of its people. And at home, they’ve each dedicated their lives to caring for a child, born in Ethiopia, who needed a family. They feel connected to the country of their sons’ birth, and moved to help other children and families. Their motivations for traveling on this trip require little explanation.
Finally, Sarah Halfman, Holt’s director of programs for Africa and Haiti, shares her story. For the past year, Sarah has overseen Holt’s programs for families and children in Uganda and Ethiopia, as well as Haiti – flying in an out of these countries on a fairly regular basis, and working with the staff on the ground as well as at Holt’s headquarters in Eugene, Oregon.
But before coming to work for Holt two years ago, Sarah lived and worked in Africa off and on for nine years – beginning with the Peace Corps in 2003. For two and a half years, she lived in a small village in the southeast African country of Malawi, where she served as a health extension worker focusing on HIV prevention and education. She established the first HIV testing facility in her community, and also led a number of sustainable agricultural projects for the village. When her Peace Corps commitment ended, Sarah returned to the U.S. to pursue a Master’s degree in public health from Tulane University. She completed her degree in Zambia and later moved to Sudan. In both countries, she worked to prevent and mitigate the impact of HIV in the communities she served.
“Almost nine years ago today, I went to Africa for the first time. And it changed my life,” Sarah says to the group, echoing what many of the students have said they anticipate to happen in Ethiopia. “It’s really exciting for me to watch you all go through what I went through.”
A “Model” Home
During her time in Africa, Sarah constructed stoves of mud, brick and clay. She made drop latrines and created sustainable gardens. But one thing Sarah has never built – much less designed – is a house. For this, she enlisted the help of a local, Ethiopian engineer.
Made of locally available materials, the homes the students will build will be composed of mud, dung and straw with Eucalyptus branches holding them together. “They are a hybrid of a typical, Ethiopian-style home,” says Sarah,” which is, essentially, a round mud hut.”
What makes these homes distinct from typical homes in the community, however, are the partitions the team will build – creating rooms to separate the family from their livestock. “Inside their homes, one side has a bed. Then there’s a fire pit in the middle where they do their cooking. And then a room for the animals,” Sarah explains. “It’s not exactly ideal to have animals near where they’re cooking. So we’ll be partitioning areas for the animals.” As a result, the new homes will be rectangular in shape, instead of round.
While the majority of the foundation work will be done by the time the Beavers Without Borders team arrives, the students will build the overall structure of the homes. When complete, these houses will demonstrate a more hygienic way for the subsistence farming families of this community to co-exist with their livestock.
“Essentially, we’re setting up a model home,” Sarah explains.
To receive these model homes are two families in Siltie – a regional zone south of Addis Ababa where Holt assists 120 households, including 311 children, through family preservation services.
Although many families in the region live in dire housing conditions, both of the families to receive homes are headed by women. This was not an insignificant factor when Holt’s staff in Ethiopia made the decision.
“In most African cultures, there are certain, very strong gender roles, especially apparent in more rural areas,” Sarah explains. Women are taught to perform certain tasks, while others are typically considered a man’s responsibility. A woman’s tasks are particularly demanding.
“Women have a lot to do throughout the day already,” Sarah says. “Imagine a mom here who had to walk a mile to get her water. Then build a fire to boil it for cooking or drinking. Anytime she wants to use it, she has to build another fire and boil it again.”
In female-headed households, in which the father has died or abandoned the family, the burden falls entirely on the woman. Consequently, many of the tasks a man would typically do go unfinished. “If you don’t have someone to go collect the timber and cure the mud, it’s very difficult,” Sarah explains. “A lot of times, it would just sit until a neighbor or extended family member could help. This is why women and child-headed households are particularly targeted for any of our interventions. They are the most vulnerable.”
In short, men build houses in Ethiopia. Not women.
As in ironic twist, the majority of the athletes who volunteered for this Beavers Without Borders trip are, in fact, women. Sarah thinks that’s awesome.
“To see a group of young women going so against the standard of their community will be exceptionally impressive,” says Sarah. “It challenges already prescribed gender roles, in addition to their notion of Westerners.” Sarah anticipates that for years to come, people in this community will be talking about the time 10 Western women (and four men) came to build houses.
While the Beavers Without Borders are in for five days of strenuous labor in the hot sun, the trip won’t be all work. During their down time and days off, the team will travel to a big game park, play soccer and volleyball with children at a local school, and participate in a shoe distribution for the local community. En route to the game park, they will also visit the maternal-child hospital that Holt is building in Shinshicho. For the Holt staff and parents traveling on the trip, this will be an exciting opportunity to see the progress of the hospital. Patric, for one, has invested considerable effort to collect medical equipment for the hospital. It will be almost exactly a year since he’s visited – and a year since his serendipitous meeting with Taylor Kavanaugh and the Beavers Without Borders at the Frankfurt airport.
For Holt, this trip and partnership with OSU will take us in a new and exciting direction.
And for the student-athletes, it will truly be the experience of a lifetime – one not just the families in Ethiopia, but everyone involved will be talking about for years to come. As Larry says,”It’s gonna’ be an amazing adventure!”