It takes a family ... to build a village
On the Fourth of July, the Di Paolas relaxed inside their cozy home overlooking Oswego Lake by watching soccer matches on a large-screen television.
Having returned the previous day from a seven-day 'Habitat for Humanity' project in Costa Rica, the four children now realize that, for most people in the world, life isn't half this good. Happiness, they also discovered, is also a decision that can supercede the material have and have nots.
'People here complain about cars, cell phones or their job. There, as soon as you're 12 years old you go to work, not for yourself, but for the family,' said Sean Di Paola, a senior at Lakeridge High School. 'And yet, they are content with so little. Something has been lifted off of me.'
John and Lori Di Paola were right when they imagined the labor-intensive experience of building homes for needy families outside of San Ramon would encourage their kids to become better world citizens and help them appreciate what they have.
Instead of taking a traditional family vacation to the beach or park, the Di Paolas - longtime Habitat for Humanity building material donors - decided to participate in the 'family build' with other American volunteers. The grassroots project marked the first trip outside of the United States for the Di Paola children: Sean, Alex, Adam and Briana, who are too young to participate in domestic Habitat builds. The family fee included plane fare, meals, transportation and lodging in a hotel.
'The entire trip cost us less than going to Disney World and it's mostly tax deductible,' said John, an orthopedic surgeon. 'I think of it as an investment ... because we got to see our kids at their best.'
Upon arrival, the Di Paolas spent about eight hours each day in a 'blanket of humidity' building the beginnings of an 800-square-foot home that will one day be inhabited by the Rojas family. The Rojas, meanwhile, worked alongside the Di Paolas as part of their Habitat-required 'sweat equity.' The two families quickly became friends.
'It was magic for them to have a house,' Lori said. 'There was really an overwhelming sense of pride.'
Local construction foremen oversaw each build, which included hand-mixing cement, laying the foundation, erecting walls and digging large holes. Briana and other young volunteers created 'Welcome Home' banners that will be presented to the families.
The project ran smoothly, despite a significant language barrier and the expected aches and pains.
'The thing that drives you is that you want so badly to give this to people and see that motivation in your children,' John said. 'It felt like more of a gift to me than to the people there.'
In their free time, the Di Paolas explored the streets of San Ramon and took a jungle tour that exposed them to monkeys, sloths, lizards and freakishly large ants and spiders.
One evening, the volunteers and the families came together for a cross-cultural celebration that included red, white and blue decorations and American foods, such as apple pie.
Another group of volunteers will put the finishing touches on the homes this week and the Di Paolas, who anticipate seeing photos of the finished product, already have plans to return to San Ramon next year.
'It was good for us. It pulled us back together,' Lori said. 'Their culture was so simple. We had nothing but each other, a frisbee and some mud.'
The Di Paola children wrote about their experience in journals. Here are a few of their excerpts:
Briana Di Paola, fifth grader at Westridge Elementary
"Today was a really fun day. Even though I was working hard, I still worked for the people who were counting on me. Then, I saw a little girl named Natalia and I knew I HAD to keep working. She had the most beautiful eyes, worn out shoes, ripped clothes and such dark black hair the contrast was unbelievable!"
Adam Di Paola, seventh grader at Waluga Junior High School
"The devotion, determination and confidence that I saw in these people was incredible. Even though they had almost nothing, they still had each other and that was why they were always smiling and happy. For the entire time that I was there, I never saw anybody sad or complaining, which was what pushed me even further. I also made a wonderful friend while I was there. His name was Meivan. He lived right next door to the house we were building, and every chance he got, he would run over and help us build. He used no gloves nor shoes, but still he was enthusiastic and willing to do more. Sometimes I might still complain about something silly, like how hot it is out side or how uncomfortable my shoes are, but then I remember Meivan and all of the other people in Costa Rica, and I feel as if none of that is important and I just stop caring."
Sean Di Paola, senior at Lakeridge High School
"June 26th: Despite it's simplicity, the construction of the hole feels much more complicated due to the strenuous work required. It's probably 90 degrees outside but feels like 110 degrees below ground...and the soil is dense, heavy, red clay. We are digging a 6-foot-deep septic tank, 5 by 5 feet in width. The person we are building the home for, Sergio, is a pastor in town and he has been tirelessly working beside us, refusing to be outworked by anyone. He shows up an hour earlier and leaves an hour later than we do. He isn't getting the house for free, either. He will have a mortgage and is required to put in between 500 and 600 hours of labored work on his home and his neighbors' homes as well."
Alex Di Paola, junior at Lakeridge High School
"Totti, our humble Costa Rican site manager, reacted so generously to me commenting him on his tropical shirt (muy guapo!), that he literally gave it to me as a gift right off his sweaty back. That's love!"