Habitat for Humanity’s Malcolm Whalley is looking for volunteers to join him in building homes in Samoa before typhoon season hits. He spoke to Gabrielle Stuart about his experiences helping people after disasters overseas, discovering similar needs here in Christchurch, and the dangers of contracting “habitat-itis.”

So how did these trips start for you?

After the tsunami in Thailand in 2004 I and my wife, Jennie, wanted to help, and we didn't want to just donate because with some funds two thirds will go into admin before it gets there. We collected a team of about 12 people from our church who wanted to go, and we kept nagging, because the squeaky wheel gets the oil, until they agreed to let us in. So we went for five weeks.

And what was it like?

It was quite shocking. There were still a lot of dead bodies there, so you could smell that death smell everywhere you went. We were building block toilets mostly, and as you were digging in the washed up sand you would find people's wallets, or children's toys. It was very emotionally draining. And of course, we spoke no Thai language, so you were having to sign to communicate. We stayed in the top level of a resort there, but the entire bottom level had been wiped out and there was no power and no luxuries.


Coming home after that must have been a shock too?

Yes, we were asking why do we have so much stuff? We had a debrief afterward, which is important, because you do get a kind of culture shock. But after coming back we got involved in a Habitat for Humanity project in Ilam, and then we both got co-opted on to the board. After that trip we both had what we call in the industry habitat-itis: Once you do one project you don't want to stop. Just making a difference in people's lives, that's what does it. We've done six trips now.

Tell me about this trip?

The wider goal is to build 300 homes in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, where a lot of homes were devastated by Cyclone Winstone, but we have 42 homes we want to build by November, before the typhoon season hits. It's a challenge, but we can build them fast, because they are traditional style homes with no walls, and most of the components have been already constructed at the resource centre there - we call it Bunnings. The cost for the volunteers is $2995, which covers flights, accommodation, meals and medical insurance.

And on some of our trips we have slept communally on mattresses on the floor, but this is in a house with hot water, so it's luxury.

With no walls on the homes, wouldn't the wind just whip straight through when typhoons hit?

It is actually better, because you don't have a solid wall for the wind to hit, and they don't have a whole lot of furniture. Usually everyone goes to the village hall until it passes. In one village in Nepal, the 68 Habitat homes we built were the only ones left standing in the village after the disaster there.

And what are you looking for in terms of volunteers?

The most important thing is just a willingness to help. We took a 75-year-old bricklayer to Thailand, and we've had everyone from electricians to lawyers. All you need is willing hands and to be physically able. But I don't know if it's just the time of year, but it's been very difficult to find volunteers and put teams together. We're also about to open our second Restore in Christchurch in October, so we will be needing more local volunteers too, even just for a few hours a week.

And tell me about the work you do through Habitat in Christchurch?

Locally we've just finished 21 houses, which means there are 42 kids in that community who have been living either in substandard housing or shocking rental housing, who are now in homes. Of those 21, 19 families had children with health issues, and since they have moved into their new homes they have had no hospital visits, so that shows what a difference it makes. But we had a list of 47 families, and had to chose from them the 21 for the homes. That was very hard. It makes you realise there is so much need here, so much terrible housing, and the amount of poverty in Christchurch is unbelievable.

So what do you do for work here?

I'm an aircraft engineer for Air New Zealand, so in layman's terms I'm essentially a mechanical breakdown help desk.

And they don't mind you leaving for these trips at short notice?

No! I'm in a good position, because I've been there a few years now, and have too much leave built up, so they don't mind when I take it. But it is sometimes short notice, especially for disaster relief, or we have trips cancelled without much notice.

And it doesn't sound like you'd get a lot of time outside all this work, but when you do, what do you do with it?

We have a holiday house in Mt Somers, so we spend a bit of time there. Not much in winter, because there is no electricity, but a lot of time in summer. I met with a friend recently who asked do you still do four-wheel driving, because I used to do a lot of that. But I said no, because it was an interest that was all about me and now I'd much rather do something for someone else. When you're passionate about something you make the time to do it, and it doesn't feel like work.

And how did you meet your wife?

We met through my sister, when she and Jennie did nursing together - and we've just celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary.

And what is it that keeps you so passionate about this work?

It's just the fact we are making a difference in people's lives. It's not only a life-changing experience for the families we help, but for the volunteers too. When we have handover days it really brings tears to your eyes to see what it means to them. And we don't just give houses away, it's a hand up not a handout. The Habitat model is that families put in 450 "sweat hours" into their own homes, even if that just means picking up a paintbrush, so they are often upskilling too. So seeing the difference we are making in families' lives is really special, although it's just a speck compared with what is needed.