STAPLES -- Staples-Motley High School graduate Heidi Cunningham traveled to Uganda, Africa, last summer as a Habitat for Humanity International Global Village volunteer.
Habitat for Humanity International is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry seeking to eliminate poverty, housing and homelessness from the world, and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action.
Habitat invites people of all backgrounds, races and religions to build houses together in partnership with families in need. They have built more than 125,000 houses around the world. Cunningham is proud to have built one such home.
Global Village is a program designed to provide an educational and spiritual experience within a cross-cultural environment. The objectives usually are met through new relationships that team members with each other and with their host affiliates. By living and working with the host community, participants have an opportunity to personally witness and contribute to HFHI's efforts to eliminate substandard housing throughout the world.
"I remember at first I was really nervous that (HFHI) may not choose me to go," Cunningham said. "I had never built a house or anything that had really stayed together, and I had never traveled out of the U.S., not even to Canada or Mexico, but I filled out an application and mailed it anyway."
Then team leader Wanda Smith contacted Cunningham. They e-mailed back and forth several times, and had a few phone interviews. Through the conversations with Smith, Cunningham got a lot of questions answered and was impressed by Smith's ability to lead the mission, her 13th to Africa.
"Right away I loved her spunky personality and was thrilled she invited me to be on her team," Cunningham said. "I knew the trip would be an experience to remember."
Naomi Garbish (left) of Cook; Heidi Cunningham of Hopkins, formerly of Staples-Motley; Alison McKechnie, Toronto, Canada; and Julie Antelman, Chicago, posed during a school visit in Uganda, Africa.
Cunningham went on the trip expecting to learn about poverty housing, development challenges, international economics and world cultures, and she definitely learned about all of those things. She also learned a lot about herself.
"In preparing for the Christmas season, I realized how amazing my trip to Africa was," she said.
Recently Cunningham was asked to share her trip with 15- and 16-year-olds who were starting confirmation class. She was honored to tell them about the mission, and excited when they were interested in it and could relate in one aspect or another.
"My hope is that by sharing my experience others will see what an amazing place Africa is, and realize how incredible Habitat for Humanity is," she said.
Cunningham said raising $4,000 for her overseas trip was exhausting.
"Most of my funds came from donations, but donors certainly weren't just handing out the money," she said. "Some people weren't interested in donating, others wouldn't donate because I was going to Africa. I faced all sorts of obstacles I didn't anticipate, but I cannot think of anything in my life that has been more worthwhile."
Since Cunningham has returned home she has gone back to her job and her life, something that was difficult for her at first.
She hopes to join another Habitat for Humanity International Global Village, and is currently working to collect tools to send to Madagascar, Africa, for the 2004 Global Village volunteers.
"I will never forget my first experience with Habitat for Humanity in Uganda. It was indescribable and nothing short of incredible," Cunningham said.
(Heidi Cunningham, 24, is a Staples-Motley High School and St. Cloud State University graduate who currently lives in Hopkins.)
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