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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Tales From Armenia

Builders who volunteer overseas reap many rewards

Placing the concrete for the topping slab at the clinic in Lusakhpyur, Armenia.
Image Credit: All photos: Martin Holladay

In this week’s blog, I’m going to take a break from building science. Instead of providing advice to green builders, I’m simply going to reminisce about my time as a construction volunteer in Armenia.

To introduce this topic, I might have discussed some of the common mistakes made by international aid agencies and charitable organizations. I might have elaborated on the truism that Americans who volunteer overseas often get more lasting benefits from their work than the villagers they try to serve. I might have presented a cogent thesis explaining why green building must have a social justice component.

Instead, I decided to just tell my story, without any morals or conclusions.

If you are a builder, and your schedule and financial situation are flexible enough to allow you to volunteer overseas, I urge you to do so. Just go — to Haiti, to Central America, to Africa, to Asia. Go for a week, for a month, or for a year. Your skills are needed. You won’t regret it.

A family tradition

When I was growing up, I was influenced by role models in my family. In 1947, my mother and father joined a group of volunteers on a construction project in a war-ravaged region of France. Years later, my mother was a Peace Corps volunteer in St. Kitts. My sister Cathy and brother-in-law Mike were Peace Corps volunteers in Tunisia; my brother Peter and sister-in-law Elana have volunteered in Tanzania and Mexico; my niece Mara has volunteered at a women’s center in Bolivia; my sister Meg is now volunteering at a school in Haiti; and my son Moses is now a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador.

Between April 1990 and March 1992, I spent 17 months in Armenia. I worked on…

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  1. RMaglad | | #1

    This made my morning. Thank
    This made my morning. Thank you for sharing.

  2. user-4739854 | | #2

    Thank you.
    Martin, thanks for sharing your story.

  3. SwitchgrassFarmer | | #3

    Thanks for all your family has done to make the world better.
    Martin, thank you for writing about your experiences. You come from good stock!

    (Spending time in an area that has been through a natural disaster puts things in perspective pretty quickly.)

  4. GBA Editor
    Patrick Mccombe | | #4

    Really Interesting, Martin.

  5. lowelllodesign | | #5

    Amazing and inspiring.

    Amazing and inspiring.


  6. Expert Member

    Good man
    “There was a star danced, and under that was I born. ”

  7. kyeser | | #7

    How are things since?
    How have things faired in Armenia since you left? Housing, economy etc...

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Kye Ford
    I wrote a bit more about Armenia's political and economic challenges in another blog, When the Gas Pipeline Shuts Down.

    The Republic of Armenia's challenges include a significant geographical challenge -- it is a landlocked country -- as well as a variety of economic and political challenges, some of which are shared with other former Soviet republics, and some of which are unique to Armenia.

    The transition from the Soviet economic system to a (modified) capitalist economic system benefited the fortunes of the elite without bringing many economic benefits to working-class Armenians who lack political connections. In short, the rich got richer, while the poor stayed poor (or got even poorer). That's happening in a lot of countries these days...

    My summary of the current situation doesn't do the country justice, of course. I hope that Armenia has a bright future. It has many blessings: it is a beautiful country with a generous and optimistic people, with a high level of educational and cultural achievement. I haven't been back to Armenia since 1992. Friends tell me that Yerevan is utterly transformed, with many new thriving restaurants, cafes, and hotels. I hope to have the opportunity to return to Armenia some day, to see the changes with my own eyes.

  9. user-1017420 | | #9

    Well done!
    We tried this once. We contacted Habitat for Humanity to volunteer our time.
    The response was saddening. We were told that they had many projects that needed volunteers (good thing), BUT that a 1 month "volunteer" trip would cost us $8000 each. The costs were for the accommodation, the safari, airfare, food, and so on. In the 1 month trip, there were ONLY 7 days working on the project. The rest was sightseeing and tourism types of activities.
    Needless to say, we never went ahead with this. It was disappointing.

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Reply to Alec Shalinsky
    Don't give up so easily. If you do more online research, or call up local ministers, priests, pastors, or rabbis in your area, you'll eventually find a volunteer opportunity that meets your needs. Habitat for Humanity is just one of hundreds of nonprofits you might consider.

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