Volunteer witnesses “dramatic” impact new homes are making in Madagascar

Volunteer witnesses “dramatic” impact new homes are making in Madagascar

The Fuller Center for Housing’s Global Builders program is a vehicle for volunteers to truly partner with families in need, helping them build simple, decent places to live.

It’s also a unique way to see the world, often far from well-trodden tourist paths. These volunteers experience countries through the eyes of its most vulnerable citizens, not from poolside at a luxury resort well insulated from the problems no country would want to advertise to tourists.

It’s not poverty tourism but a get-your-hands-dirty mission involving sweat, blisters and sore muscles — more than offset by the lasting joy of helping a family build a brighter future for themselves and future generations. What Global Builders volunteers leave in their wake are not just homes but also hope … and friends for life.

A typical Fuller Center home in Madagascar similar to this one can be sponsored for just $3,750. Learn more about sponsoring a home in Madagascar at fullercenter.org/madagascar.

Perhaps no Global Builders destination is quite so off the beaten path nor more in need of decent housing than the country of Madagascar, the island nation just east of mainland Africa in the Indian Ocean. More than three-fourths of its people live on less than $1.90 per day.

Good Lord, it’s so poor — profoundly poor,” said Andi Van Sickle, who recently led a Global Builders trip to Madagascar and who was a member of the very first Global Builders team to serve in Madagascar in 2022.

But, with that, the homes that we’re building are comparatively very humble compared to other places, so you see very quickly the difference between the housing that someone is living in while your team is building what they’re building, sometimes side-by-side,” she added. “You see the small, humble but oh-so-much-better housing that they are now going to be safely located in. It’s dramatic. The witnessing of the impact is dramatic.”

Andi Van Sickle (right) with a couple of fellow Global Builders team members recently in Madagascar.

While Van Sickle has been on multiple international builds to various locations with both Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center for Housing, Madagascar stands out among international destinations for many reasons.

This country is very unique in the world because of its location and because of the plant and animal biodiversity,” she said. “It makes it all very different from anyplace else I’ve been.”

When many people hear the word “Madagascar,” they may think first of the unique animals that call it home or recall the animated talking lemurs from the 2005 DreamWorks film. But it is the Malagasy people who leave a lasting impression, Van Sickle said.

Their culture is super-tight, and their families are super-tight,” she said. “They live very, very much in community. In our culture, we speak about how connection and community is important, but many of us my age have seen our culture evolve to where we don’t necessarily know our neighbors like our parents did. These people definitely turn to one another and they are definitely there for one another. Families are very, very tight and important.

Maybe because we are there under an umbrella as Global Builders there to help, but we are very swiftly welcomed in,” Van Sickle added. “The Malagasy people on the two builds that I’ve been there on, in both cases in the very beginning you’ll feel a little shyness perhaps — both on our part and on their part — but through the context of what we’re doing and doing it together, that shyness so quickly melts away. It’s really something. It changes to where you see people just jumping right in, hand in hand, doing the work and also sharing their lives through the help of an interpreter.”

Andi Van Sickle and fellow team members celebrate with Malagasy locals at the conclusion of the inaugural Fuller Center Global Builders build in Madagascar in 2022.

One way the tightness of the community reveals itself is that families who have been extended a hand-up into decent housing of their own continue to show up on Fuller Center job sites to help others build strong foundations for their families.

You see folks who have partnered to receive homes through Habitat long ago or more recently with Fuller, and they are some of the very people who are the ongoing local volunteers working with the affiliate,” Van Sickle said. “It’s very, very meaningful to see that and experience that.”

Many of the meals the volunteers enjoyed on the work sites were prepared by homeowners who remain grateful for the hand-up extended by the local Fuller Center covenant partner and the volunteers who have come to work alongside them. Van Sickle believes that part of the reason is because the empowerment that comes from homeownership is not just a theory but is something tangible and witnessed throughout areas where The Fuller Center now builds.

There are few places, maybe if any, where a person may have the opportunity to more directly see the partnership and feel the impact — not just the impact of that house they are working on but also the rippling impacts of how over time you see not just one home but a number of homes.”

Locals provide meals for Global Builders volunteers.

A retired nurse, Van Sickle also spends much time volunteering in her local Wisconsin community, but international volunteering is a special passion.

I have volunteered a lot locally, but I serve internationally specifically because I find it a way that, together with others, that I can really land as a global citizen,” she said. “I can feel what it means to be a global citizen — somebody who lives where we live but feels a connection to others all over the globe.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of being a Global Builders team leader, Van Sickle added, is witnessing others become addicted to helping others — something that they can take home with them to serve others in need.

That’s what matters to me,” she said. “It’s one thing to go on a build. It’s another thing to embrace the impact of that as we live our lives day to day. You see it in lots of ways. You see it when you hear about people now engaging in their local efforts — whether its homelessness, poverty circumstances, poverty housing — and see people become more engaged and more involved at home. You see it, too, when you so often see volunteers who then build again and again and again. Some of them no sooner than they get home before they’re looking for their next opportunity to build.”

These experiences also help build the pool of volunteers, who are a critical component of The Fuller Center’s founding principles and whose Global Builders fees help fund the building of homes internationally.

Building as we know it in Fuller, volunteers are also donors,” she said. “People who build are donors. The money that they spend to participate in this, they could actually make a different choice and take a very nice vacation. Volunteer builders are a hugely important pool of people for the ongoing support that is needed. To have a pool of people who have been informed by their own direct experiences, there’s nothing else like it. It’s hugely important for the ongoing support of the mission of trying to get everybody into a decent home — domestically and internationally.”

Andy Van Sickle (right) with local leaders Manitra (left) and Manana.

Volunteering in a place like Madagascar is not easy and involves sacrificing a few expectations — such as fancy hotel rooms and fine dining, although Van Sickle does rave about the food prepared by her Malagasy friends.

Madagascar is a build for hearty, healthy people,” she said. “You’ve got to have patience and flexibility, or else don’t go there.”

She certainly does not want to discourage anyone from making the trip, though. She insists that it is rewarding and that volunteers will be impressed with how much the local group led by Manitra Rakotomalala already has accomplished.

In the past year, my goodness, he has been a very busy host,” Van Sickle said. “His team working with him is just incredible. I imagine he’s looking forward to doing more and more. The need is so great.”

On international volunteering, Andi Van Sickle says: "I can feel what it means to be a global citizen — somebody who lives where we live but feels a connection to others all over the globe.”

Though she officially retired late last year, Van Sickle remains as busy as ever.

I’m a doer,” she said. “I’m busy. I have hobbies. I have a wonderful circle of family and friends. Within that circle, we do a lot. We help each other. We help others. We continued to just enjoy our lives and try to extend support to folks who aren’t always as fortunate as us.”

And, yes, that help will continue to extend around the world — including to the unique land of Madagascar.

I have such privilege of having good health and having choices that other people don’t have,” Van Sickle said. “From day to day and month to month, I’m just embracing opportunities. It’s important to me that my choices in the world include mindfulness about our global neighbors and mindfulness of the world.”

Bonus video: Andi Van Sickle reunites with the first family she helped during the Global Builders' inaugural Madagascar build

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