Norm Cowan – Taking retirement on the road

I’m an ordinary Joe who likes to travel

How did you first become involved with Habitat for Humanity?

I had just moved back to Calgary. I was living in a senior’s complex. I found the residents there to be very inactive, I was determined not to get like that so I would get out my bike and tour the city. Calgary has wonderful bike paths. One day I passed by a Habitat work site, I stopped in to see what was involved. They said I could come any time I just had to sign a waiver and need to have steel toed work boots if I did not have any they had some that I could use. I said I would be back. A few days later after considering if I could find the time to volunteer from my busy schedule of getting up and going to the gym at 6 AM then riding my bike I told them that I would come 2 days a week.

When they found out I was a carpenter I was given any job I wanted. The Habitat way is to use volunteers as much as possible. I soon found my self teaching bank clerks how to build walls and use power tools. There was a small core of about 6 or 8 that were regular volunteers, the rest came from different companies that would give their employees a day off to come and help. Knowing that Habitat was world wide I asked one morning if there was any projects that I could go to. I was told there was one in Mexico. I made contact with Habitat International in Americus Georgia, was told I could go, and the fun began.

From Calgary to Mexico, where else has working with Habitat taken you?

I spent 3 months in Puebla Mexico with a team of 13, we were working on a Jimmy Carter Work Project. I still wanted to know more about Habitat for Humanity, so the following year I went to Americus Georgia, Habitat’s International headquarters where I spent an other 3 months building a replica of a house Habitat was building in India. Two years later I again went to Americus but this time I volunteered at a farm called Koinania. It was where Mr. Fuller got started building houses, back in 1964.

I was asked if I would go to Sri Lanka for the tsunami relief. From there I moved over to India for 9 months. Now I am in Biloxi Mississippi.

Sounds like hard work. Where is the fun and satisfaction in it for you?

When you work on a Jimmy Carter Work Project you work 6 days a week and sometimes 10 hour days. The fun part is I have been able to see parts of the world that I would never of traveled to. I have met a great bunch of people. It has filled a void in my life and got me out of the cold Canadian Winters.

Habitat is a 2 way street for me. It helps me financially by providing housing and a small stipend when I am volunteering for more than 2 months, they fly me there and back. I have construction knowledge and time that I can give them. I hope to continue to volunteer as long as my health holds out.

Tell me about this great bunch of people.

There is a core group of volunteers that do the Jimmy Carter projects year after year. This is my third one, I am the new guy. Some have been doing this for 10 or more years. They come from all walks of life and are very dedicated and versatile. They accepted this Canadian from day one, they have become a family for me. We keep in touch after every build and I have visited with most of them in my travels. They know what has to be done and they get it done.

What it is about being in other parts of the world that you enjoy?

Traveling with Habitat is much different than going as a tourist. You get immersed in their culture right away. Some times it is fun some times it is frustrating. You are working side by side with them. Often not being able to communicate verbally it becomes a learning experience for both of you. You are living right next door to them, shop in the same stores, eat or at least try to eat the same foods. You are invited to their celebrations. In the countries that I have been to we kind of stand out, it is not long before the word spreads who we are and why we are there. It changes how you are treated. Most of the time in a good way but occasionally we have been threatened. After each journey I come home more appreciative of what a wonderful country we live in.

The women working in their beautiful saris, what’s their story?

My nine months in India was a great experience. I bought a bicycle and rode back and forth to work. I also went into the back roads and saw the small communities that were there. Maybe 30 houses all bunched together. They were not really houses they were one room shacks, dirt floors ,no electricity or water but the ladies all wore saris. As you can see in the picture these were home owners that were putting in their hours of sweat equity. They had formed a line to move bricks, when moving bigger blocks and sand and cement they carried them on their heads. We tried to talk them out of wearing their saris to work. They really had no other kind of dress.

How are the people of Biloxi doing in regards to rebuilding their lives?

I think the people in Biloxi are doing better than those in New Orleans. The destroyed houses have mostly been taken down and the mess removed. Not so in New Orleans. I am not sure just how many left and never came back. Those that I have talked to all have their own story to tell and they seem to be upbeat about it all.

Thanks Uncle Norm, I hope that when I’m 73 I’ll be inspiring people the way you inspire me.

Habitat for Humanity International seeks 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.
Habitat has built more than 250,000 houses around the world, providing more than 1 million people in more than 3,000 communities with safe, decent, affordable shelter.

You can learn more about Habitat for Humanity at their website

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