First Global Builders team to serve in Romania gets up-close look at thriving operation

First Global Builders service trip to Romania a resounding — albeit totally expected — success

The ink had barely dried on the covenant partnership between The Fuller Center for Housing and its newest international partner in Europe — Cluj, Romania — before Peter Sexton began assembling the first Fuller Center Global Builders service trip, which took place last month.

Having worked in more than 25 locations on five continents with both Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center, the MIT-educated scientist was hardly just checking off another site on his wish list of international service opportunities. In fact, this was his fifth trip to work in Cluj — the first three with Habitat and the fourth with YouthBuild. That was before the group leading the nonprofit building efforts in Cluj approached The Fuller Center about joining the ministry, something Sexton had encouraged them to consider.

“I was a proponent of them hooking up with The Fuller Center,” the experienced international volunteer said when contacted in Malta, where he and his wife were enjoying some leisure travel instead of service travel for a change. “This is an organization that is very strong without a lot of turnover.”

Sexton first began going to Cluj through his Unitarian church in Boston that has a partner church in Cluj, the heart of Transylvania — home to the fictional Dracula but also home to real Unitarian churches that are the oldest in the world. Because the leaders of the new Fuller Center covenant partner had never stopped working and building through their transitions, he anticipated that leading the first Fuller Center Global Builders trip would be a positive experience.

That proved to be an under-estimation.

“This is, by far, the best, period,” he said of the many international locations in which he has volunteered. Their safety protocols are very, very good. They have land, and they’re building a whole neighborhood. They’re about 10 houses into what will ultimately be about 35 or 40. They have a great team.

“They get local volunteers, and they also get college students and families,” he added. “While we were there, we were building with family members trying to get sweat equity, family members who already got homes were trying to show their appreciations and some local volunteers.”

That report did not exactly come as a shock to Fuller Center Global Builders Coordinator Tiffany Ellis.

“Working with Peter and our Fuller Center for Housing team in Romania has been a treat,” she said. “Between Peter’s previous experience leading trips to Romania and Fuller Center Romania’s responsiveness and proactive planning, that’s a formula for a successful build experience.”

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Sexton expects Cluj, Romania to become a popular Global Builders destination with its legendary history, striking architecture and affordability.

“Cluj was the capital of Transylvania when Transylvania was a kingdom,” he said. “It has Roman ruins and great restaurants. It’s not a difficult place to go and build. And it’s dirt cheap. Except for maybe the five or six top restaurants in the city, you can get anything you want for $14.”

For all it has to offer visitors, the country’s progress since overthrowing dictator Nicolae Ceausecu and shifting away from communism in 1989.

“Romania is typical of countries that used to be communist and then went capitalist,” Sexton said. “Some people won really big, and some people lost. A lot of the industries there weren’t modern enough to compete with the western world, and they went out of business.

“There are a lot of (low-paying) jobs just like in the U.S.,” he added. “There’s lots of people slinging hamburgers and selling lattes and stuff like that. The poor there are more hidden poor. You don’t see homeless on the street. These are people who are living on a couple of salaries at minimum wage and just being able to eke by.”

These are the kinds of families with whom The Fuller Center of Romania partners, and volunteers like their first Global Builders team and the many locals who offer their service are helping build not just homes but entire neighborhoods of happy, hard-working families. There currently are four Global Builders trips already planned for 2023 — each with openings for volunteers — and more teams are expected to join the parade of service.

“This is a must-visit location for our Global Builders teams,” said Ellis, who will be leading a team of her own to Romania in August 2023. “I can’t wait to see what the days ahead hold for our Romanian partners and the families they serve.”

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