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Rich Rackowski, from left, Elizabeth Andrews and Geralynn Rackowski, meet at Habitat for Humanity’s building site in Port Townsend to share memories of their “summer vacation” working on building projects in Romania. -- Photo by Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News
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Elizabeth Andrews’ international work team pauses for a photo with the Roma family, in black hats and head scarfs, whose house they started building in Beius, Romania, in June. The Rackowskis worked on the family’s house, similar to the one in background, in July. – Photo by Elizabeth Andrews

IN "EAT, PRAY, Love," author Elizabeth Gilbert describes her yearlong attempt to rebound from divorce by immersing herself in the culture of Italy, meditation in India and romance in Bali.

When Elizabeth Andrews spent two weeks in Romania this summer, there was no question of why she was there.

"It's a 12-hour day with the team," Andrews said. "We eat, stay and work together."

Andrews, an anthropologist who lives in Port Townsend, is the co-leader of a Global Village team, an international group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers who take working vacations to build houses for people they have never met.

This June, she and Karen Sturnick, also of Port Townsend, spent two weeks in Beius, an 800-year-old market town in Romania, where their team laid the foundation for a house for a Roma, or Gypsy, family.

The work was continued by Geralynn and Rich Rackowski, also from Port Townsend, whose Global Village team was there in July.

Sturnick works for Habitat for Humanity International, but Andrews and Rich Rackowski volunteer at the local level; Andrews as a board member and Rich as a builder.

They had never met until last week, but all have a passion for work travel.

Not like being a tourist

"It's different from being a tourist," Geralynn said. "You get to meet people."

Habitat for Humanity/Beius runs on volunteers -- corporate groups, school groups and Global Villagers rotate through the town of 12,000 year-round, resulting in 200 homes being built since 1997.

The need is great: 35 percent of housing stock in Romania is in a state of neglect, according to the affiliate's website, and few people have the resources to buy or build.

The Roma family of four that the Port Townsend volunteers worked with were living in one room attached to a relative's house.

With Habitat's help, the family built a two-bedroom home with white stuccoed walls and a red tile roof.

It's small -- only 21 by 24 feet -- with a porcelain wood stove for heat, but the mortgage is affordable.

Most of the Romas, who make up a small percentage of the population, are settled, the volunteers learned, and fall into three groups by occupation: musicians, artisans and gutter builders, the latter probably derived from the traditional trade of tinsmithing.

"They came and helped with the roof," Rich said.

The two teams also helped build a study hall at an orphanage run by a nun in a nearby village.

The hall will be used for an after-school program for Roma children, providing them with a meal and help with homework.

Roma children are more likely to stay in school, Geralynn said, if their family has its own house, but the traditional ways still prevail.

"Children are often betrothed between the ages of 10 and 12, she said. "They stop sending them to school for fear of being kidnapped by other tribes."

Habitat team leaders recruit members online from all over the world, with volunteers paying their own way.

Part of the fee goes to the Habitat affiliate for seed money.

Accommodations vary according to locale -- Andrews has a friend whose Habitat team stayed in a yurt in Mongolia -- but she and the Rackowskis stayed on the top floors of a guest house and ate at local restaurants.

Although Romania is literally all white bread, Rich said, the food was good: pork, chicken or fish, stuffed peppers, wild mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumber salads.

"There was lots of paprika," Geralynn said.

Days off for outings

There were also several half-days off for outings, planned by the affiliate.

Both groups visited the Bear Caves, a limestone cavern that became closed off by ice, trapping 141 cave bears inside.

Andrews visited the weekly market, where people from outlying villages brought in cows, pigs and chickens as well as handmade farm implements.

The trip also included a welcome dinner and overnight stay at the rendezvous point, Budapest, Hungary -- the Rackowskis' team staying in a "boatel" moored in the Danube River -- and a farewell dinner there.

Volunteers often stay on to see more of the country, which Andrews did to visit relatives in Albania.

She chose Romania because her family comes from there, and she had never been to Eastern Europe.

She has also worked on Global Village teams in South Africa and Mexico, and is planning to lead a team to Macedonia in September 2011.

"I have 'Habitat-tis'," she admits.

It's the direct connection with people in another part of the world that makes the experience unique, Andrews said.

Rich, a retired computer technician, said he researched other work-travel programs and found that Habitat offered the best bang for the buck.

The Rackowskis went to Chile with Habitat, then to Poland because of Rich's family heritage.

They returned to Poland for a second work vacation, where they got to see the finished houses and renewed acquaintances.

"There were hugs all around," Rich said.

Andrews and the Rackowskis plan to give a slide show on their visit to Beius during World Habitat Week, which is the first week in October.

They also discussed the idea of recruiting people from Port Townsend for a Global Village team.

For more information, contact Andrews at

Habitat for Humanity International's Global Village program sends 500 teams a year to 40 host countries.

Among the fall, winter and spring trips that have openings are those to Fiji, India, Brazil and Cameroon.

For more information, go to www.habitat/org/gv.

No building experience necessary. No maximum age.

Just a passion for life and a desire to work.


Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail jjackson@olypen.

Last modified: August 24. 2010 10:47PM
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