Jonathan Verpent - General Building Projects in South Africa
On August 17th, I embarked on the journey of a lifetime to Cape Town, South Africa for two weeks. I have never travelled outside the country and to be honest was a bit nervous. I was to stay with a local family who would provide me with meals. When I was not home, I would spend my days volunteering; helping to build a community centre in an underprivileged area on the outskirts of Cape Town.
Other than this, I did not know much about my trip or what to expect. Was the area I was staying safe? Were there other volunteers at the house? What will the food be like? What will the community centre be used for? How long have they been building it? What will the other volunteers be like? How else can I help? These were just a few questions among many others! Throughout the journey all my questions would be answered and my concerns would be addressed.
Before I get to the details of the trip I will tell you why I decided to volunteer. In August of 2012, I made a decision to try to make a difference in the world by completing 30 good deeds before turning 30 in August of 2013.
When I began my journey, I was unsure what to expect. After completing 29 deeds, it had exceeded all of my expectations and was an incredible experience. I completed a variety of deeds, including: providing meals for the homeless, working with children, teaching computer basics, helping families in need during the holidays, raising money for various charities/causes, and more. I met a number of amazing people and learnt so much. For my 30th deed, I wanted to do something unique, so I decided to take a trip to South Africa to volunteer on the building project through Projects Abroad.
Arriving in South Africa
My journey began as I hopped on an 18 hour flight from New York to South Africa. When I arrived in Cape Town, I was met by a Projects Abroad staff member who brought me to my host family’s home. While driving, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the city. Cape Town is surrounded by mountains, with amazing coastlines and gorgeous scenery. After living in an urban area and working in New York City, it was refreshing to be surrounded by something other than concrete and steel.
After a short car ride, I made it to the home of my host family, Desiree and Tyrin, or as I would call them, Momma and Pappa. I met the rest of the volunteers who were all very nice, courteous and interested in my background. There were six other volunteers staying at the home from all over the world: England, Japan, Canada, Germany, and Holland. After a short while, I headed to bed for some much needed rest.
The following day I was picked up by a Projects Abroad staff member and taken to orientation. During the orientation, I learnt the public transportation system and was educated on the do’s and don’ts of Cape Town. While Cape Town is a beautiful city, it can also be quite dangerous. As long as you use common sense and are careful, there aren't any problems. As a whole, the orientation was very insightful and was a great way to get to know other new volunteers as well.
My Building Project
For the next two weeks I worked in a local town outside Cape Town on the Building project. The community centre that the volunteers and I were building was for residents who really do not have much to their name. Most homes in the town are made completely out of scrap metal, tarps, plastic, wood, tires, or anything else they could find. There is no running water and most have no bathroom. Most shacks house around ten people or more.
To be honest, it was all a bit overwhelming to see for the first time, but this motivated me to do whatever I could to make a difference over the next two weeks.
On the topic of motivating, the Building project manager, Deen Singh is one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever met. There really aren’t enough kind words to describe how incredible this man is. Deen did extensive leg work to get the project off the ground including securing all the permits, getting the government’s buy in, approving it with the locals, among probably thousands of other things. In my time spent there, I enjoyed every moment spent with him and learnt more than I could imagine.
I spent about half of my time there, using what Deen taught me to build the community centre and the other half spending time entertaining the children at a day care centre on site. The community centre is not built like the local homes or anything I am used to in the Western world. Everything is made from just cement and sandbags. Much of my time there was spent filling sand bags, mixing cement, and plastering walls. It also provided a great bonding experience with other volunteers.
In addition to building, I spent an equal amount of time with the children that are in a day care centre adjacent to the building site. I spent time doing what I do best: acting like a kid and making funny faces and noises, lifting them up in the air to the ceiling, tying shoes, playing on the playground, and anything else I could do to make them smile. The children are very loving, crave attention and immediately latch onto you when they see you. They are a big reason why I had such a good time in South Africa.
I thought the trip would have been all about building a community centre. To be honest, the actual community centre was secondary. It was a ray of hope and provided a sense of community for the locals. It was about being a positive influence on the young children, who have experienced more hardship in their short lives than most do in a lifetime. It was about helping out the stray dogs, and "adopting" them on the site as if they were our own.
Although my time there was short, I know I had a positive influence on the children, dogs, volunteers, and the building site in general.
My time in South Africa was nothing short of life changing. The bonds I made with the other volunteers, my host family, Deen, and the children are everlasting. I will never forget the times I had and will ensure I let the moments I shared have a positive influence on my life and others around me.