It was a little after 8 on a Monday morning, and our small bus bounced along the narrow roads that wind their way through the Polish countryside.
Gone were the tall buildings, the fine restaurants and the bustling streets of Warsaw.
So, too, as we learned one miserably hot night, were the air-conditioned hotel rooms of the big city.
Instead, we were now here, in Redzynskie, a small village of about 1,400 people nestled among Poland’s wispy fields of corn, wheat and oats.
Our group — a lawyer from Philadelphia, a Marine from Twentynine Palms, California, a career counselor from Tampa, to name a few — had ventured to this Polish village as part of a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip.
In doing so, we joined the estimated 1.6 million Americans who participate annually in these types of humanitarian efforts. Each year, volunteers travel abroad to play a small part in addressing world hunger, tackling poverty and, yes, building homes.
As for us, we were here to finish a project that began two years earlier, when a group of volunteers from Switzerland stood in this same field, in this same village, and began assembling the jigsaw puzzle of concrete blocks that would eventually become a two-story home for a deserving family.
It’s a far cry from the sagging farmhouse where Miroslaw Kawka, his wife, Agata, and their six children currently live — all crammed together in one room that measures only 269 square feet.
See those three sofas along the walls?
That’s where everyone sleeps. There’s no heat. No bathroom. No real kitchen.
See that small sink?
That’s the family’s only source of running water.
See that desk?
That’s where the children do their homework — at a desktop computer beneath a small crucifix.
“It was a big shock,” said Natalie Smith, a volunteer who is a freshman at the University of South Carolina. “It’s hard to believe that an entire family was living in such a small, dark place.”
These trips, we learned, have a way of changing your perspective.
‘Isn’t it amazing?’
The Kawkas’ new home is situated on the family’s 20-acre farm.
Miroslaw Kawka’s grandfather began tilling this land back in the 1930s, and he built the small house where the family currently lives.
The property was later handed down to Kawka’s father. Today, the task of running the family farm — with its chickens, cattle, pigs, grains and potatoes — falls to Miroslaw.
This farm provides the family with its food, and it generates their income.
But it’s not nearly enough for a family of eight.
Which is why, over the past 24 months, volunteers from seven different countries have transformed this farm into a construction site. In late June, our group of 14 volunteers from America arrived to help finish the project.
There was scaffolding to set up, and move again, and again and again, it seemed.
There was flooring to be laid, drywall to be hung, language barriers to be bridged.
Somehow — through lots of pointing, plenty of patience and even a little translation via Google — the group made it work.
“Isn’t it amazing?” asked Marta Lochowska, a volunteer coordinator at Habitat for Humanity Poland who helped organize our trip and served as our translator and tour guide. “You can build a home, even though no one speaks the same language.”
Over the course of the week, Stanislaw Bartosik, a contractor with Habitat for Humanity Poland, guided me through the process of trimming out windows and doors using pieces of Styrofoam and plaster — or “glue,” as he called it.
“Not bad. Not bad,” he would say, adjusting some of my work as he scrutinized it with a level and a keen eye. “It’s good. It’s good.”
But it seemed more like a question than a statement.
Others in our group laid brick pavers, stood atop scaffolding to replace missing pieces of insulation, installed drywall on the ceiling in an upstairs bathroom, or painted the exterior of the home with thick green paint — an interesting shade that resembled pistachio ice cream.
The tasks were tedious. The afternoons were hot, though not nearly as humid as they are in Georgia.
As he mixed cement, Lucas Wang, a 19-year-old student at the University of California, Irvine, thought of the Kawka family and their one-room house.
“Connecting with the family motivated me,” said Wang. “I saw who I was helping, and it made me want to do my best work.”
‘You have big hearts’
One day, as we stood in what will soon become the family’s kitchen, with its marble windowsills and its pastel yellow walls, it became clear that we were making progress on the two-story home.
During our stay, the future dining room served as a makeshift cafeteria, complete with soup, instant coffee and Polish sweets, such as the hot “zebra” cake baked by Agata Kawka. Later, she asked each of us to pinpoint our homes on the family’s map of the United States.
The downstairs bathroom, when it is finished, will accommodate a washing machine. (As we learned, there are very few clothes dryers in Poland.)
“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for the family,” said Smith, the University of South Carolina student who spent the day washing a coat of dust and the splatters of paint from the windows and mopping the hardwood floors in each of the bedrooms. “To go from one room … to this.”
Upstairs, Kacper, who is 11, and his 16-year-old brother, Szymon, will share one of the bedrooms.
Each of the children picked out their own paint colors. Kacper and Szymon chose a subtle green.
Veronika, 8, has her own room. She selected a muted gray.
“It’s going to be nice to have a place to put my own clothes, my toys and my jewelry,” Veronika said.
The bright orange room belongs to Dominik, who is 9, and his brother, Sebastian, who is 14.
The youngest of the children, Amelka, who is 3, will remain in a bedroom downstairs with her mom and dad until she can safely navigate the steps leading to the second floor.
When asked what he would say to all the volunteers who had traveled to Poland over the past two years to help him and his family, Miroslaw Kawka paused for a moment, then said:
“Wow! Great people. You have big hearts and set an example for helping people in need.
“You are a people who are ready to help others.”
A special trip
As we discovered during our time in Poland, these journeys are about so much more than building a home: They provide volunteers with an opportunity to learn about different cultures, discover new languages and immerse themselves in another country.
For Perry Shull, a retiree who once worked at Lincoln Financial Group in Fort Wayne, Indiana, they reaffirm the power of a helping hand.
He remembers a trip to El Salvador, some 20 years ago. When the house was finished, the family’s grandmother, tears rolling down her cheeks, rushed to Shull and wrapped her arms around him.
She didn’t speak English. He didn’t speak Spanish. But he could see the gratitude on her face.
“It just changed my entire outlook on life,” said Shull, who is 69 and served as our team leader. “I said I had to go back and do it again.”
And go back he did.
This trip marked Shull’s first to Poland, but his 19th for Habitat for Humanity.
As for me, this trip was particularly special.
My father’s family emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1891. Back then, before it was “Americanized” on Ellis Island, our last name was spelled Waligora. (Dad jokingly referred to my trip as a pilgrimage to the “fatherland.”)
But that wasn’t the only reason I was here.
This journey provided me with the opportunity to continue my work with Habitat for Humanity — a commitment that began back in 2013, when other volunteers and I helped build a home for a single mom and her 6-year-old daughter in southwest Atlanta.
I stayed in touch with the family, and one year later, as I stood on the front lawn of their new home, I witnessed how their lives had changed.
With a dedicated place to do her homework, the little girl made the honor roll and had perfect attendance.
With her own bedroom, she finally hosted a “Hello Kitty” sleepover for five of her friends.
And with a house to call her own, her mom was more optimistic than ever about the opportunities that lie ahead.
“It makes you realize all the good in this world,” she told me that day.
That experience led me to serve as the president of the board of directors for the Habitat for Humanity chapter that serves DeKalb County — and it called me to Poland this summer.
Indeed, everyone in our group had their own motivations for making this journey,
But none of us, perhaps, had a more compelling reason than Irene Devine.
‘It’s so great you’re giving back’
At the construction site, Devine was a whirlwind of activity: She hung drywall. She installed door trim and baseboards. And on a cool and overcast afternoon, she loaded wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with dirt to address a drainage issue.
For Devine, this journey — and the opportunity to help others, whether at home or abroad — were particularly meaningful.
When she was 15, Devine and her mother moved into their own Habitat for Humanity home in De Soto, Missouri.
“I was extremely overwhelmed by the Habitat volunteers who helped build that home for us,” Devine said. “They became our second family.”
Devine recalled how her mom struggled to make ends meet following her divorce. She and her mom bounced from apartment to apartment. At one point, they lived in a mobile home.
That is, until October 2013, when Devine and her mother moved into their Habitat for Humanity home.
“After we moved into that house,” Devine said, “we finally felt like we could move past a really bad time in our lives.”
Devine, who is now 21 and who is pursuing a degree in secondary education, was determined to help someone else in the same way.
Before her trip to Poland, she helped build two homes back in Missouri.
“I mainly want to help people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where.”
Her mom, Devine said, couldn’t be prouder.
“She told me, ‘It’s so great you’re giving back.’”
Random acts of kindness
On a sun-dappled field, along a quiet country road, amid remnants of abandoned farm equipment, this group of Americans and our new Polish friends gathered for a game of soccer.
As her brothers and friends zigzagged around the field, Veronika Kawka stood dejected on the sidelines. When asked why she was so sad, she pointed to her open-toed sandals — shoes certainly not made for soccer.
And that’s when Devine slipped off her sneakers and gave them to Veronika, who excitedly ran onto the field, high-fiving her teammates.
It was one of the many touching moments that unfolded during our time together — reminding us that random acts of kindness know no boundaries.
One afternoon, outside the family’s barn, Cameron Wolf, the Marine from California, showed one of the Kawkas’ sons, Kacper, how to wrestle. On our last day, after we left the build site and arrived back in Warsaw, Kacper called our coordinator from Habitat for Humanity Poland three times, pleading with Wolf to stay in touch via social media.
One morning, Molly Smith, a career counselor who lives in Tampa, helped Miroslaw Kawka’s 85-year-old mother, Wanda, scrub potatoes. Later, the two walked hand in hand through the construction site and hugged each other when our work was finished.
And on our final day in Redzynskie, Devine presented the Kawkas with a Polish Bible given to her by her church in Missouri. A few nights earlier, each of us had written an inspirational message to the family on the Bible’s blank pages.
“This,” said Miroslaw Kawka, clutching the Bible, “will always remind us of each of you.”
A Polish July 4th
While America celebrated Independence Day, those of us who traveled to Poland for this Habitat for Humanity trip were wrapping up a productive day.
The back of the home was now completely covered in paint. After days of work, the maze of brick pavers was just about finished. And a decorative layer of mosaic plaster had been applied around the foundation.
But the day’s most important work, it seemed, unfolded just down a narrow dirt path, beyond the pigs and cattle, next to some old farming equipment.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon — time to set up for the cookout.
Chairs had to be arranged. A campfire started. Sticks whittled.
Here, out in the fields, two cultures would come together for a picnic.
We cooked kielbasa and roasted marshmallows. We laughed and joked. We took photos and reflected on our time together.
Moments such as these, Daniel Jahn explained, make these trips so memorable.
Jahn, a senior financial analyst with General Motors in Detroit, should know.
This, after all, is his fifth Habitat for Humanity trip in four years. He travels with his sister, Margaret Wilkoff, and her husband, Jake, both of whom live in Chicago and ventured to Poland as part of our journey.
“This is perfect,” Jahn said. “Instead of just seeing the sights, you’re also immersing yourself in different cultures. How often do you get to work side by side with someone from a different country?”
And so it went.
No fireworks or parades. No trips to the lake. No holiday concerts.
But everyone agreed it was an Independence Day we’ll never forget.
‘My family needed help’
On a Friday afternoon, as we were preparing to leave, it was clear volunteers could only do so much.
Plenty of work remained for skilled professionals — tiles still had to be laid and plumbing fixtures installed. But the family is just weeks away from moving in.
The overwhelming nature of it all wasn’t lost on Miroslaw Kawka.
“My family needed your help … and you gave. I want to say, thank you … thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
“Because of you and all the volunteers,” he said through our interpreter, “our dreams came true.”
Before we left, Veronika presented each of us with a handmade card. On the front, she sketched a picture of her new house, complete with a Polish flag proudly flapping in the wind; inside, she wrote our names and drew a picture of a heart.
Back in Warsaw, on a cool and rainy evening, after a farewell dinner, we gathered in a coffee shop to savor some ice cream — “lody” in Polish — and to reflect on our time together.
“After every one of these trips, I ask myself, ‘How can I be more purposeful in my life?’” said Molly Smith, the 54-year-old career counselor from Tampa.
Kishore Vinnakota, a 39-year-old senior software engineer from New Jersey, agreed.
“This trip has inspired me to be better in so many ways — ways I haven’t thought about yet.”
Like all of us, Natalie Smith, Molly’s daughter, would leave Poland filled with gratitude.
“You don’t realize what we have,” she said. “We take a toilet and running water for granted. It’s so exciting that the children will be able to show their friends their own room.”
Wang, too, would leave Poland with a different perspective.
“It made me realize that I need to work hard in school and not throw away the opportunities I’ve been given,” said Wang, who is majoring in microbiology and immunology at the University of California, Irvine and dreams of becoming a surgeon.
“It reminded me that it’s important to reach all of my goals in life. Once I reach my goals, I can continue to give back.”
As for me, this journey helped me make sense of my own priorities.
I was grateful that I was able to share memories, photographs and stories of this trip with my dad, who never had the opportunity to venture to the “fatherland.”
I was thankful for the new friends I made along the way, including Bartosik, the Polish contractor who now sends me frequent messages on Facebook. Our back-and-forth, he said, will help him with his English.
Before leaving for Poland, I was scrambling to line up financing and materials to add a second bathroom to our small home in East Point.
But after witnessing how the Kawka family lived in Poland, that project no longer seemed as important as it once did.
For now, the bathroom will have to wait.
After all, as I learned during my time abroad, there are more meaningful things to focus on.
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