After lunch break their first day on the job at a Habitat for Humanity build in Honduras, Bert Hettinga and his fellow volunteers dropped their refuse into a garbage pail and walked away.

When they looked back, they saw local children approaching the bins and picking through their castoffs. Every day after that, the volunteers made bigger lunches, which they shared with the children.

“You can’t do everything,” says Hettinga, a senior financial planner with Assante Capital Management Ltd. in Calgary. “But you can do something.”

Hettinga has been “doing something” since 1999, when he accepted an invitation from his brother to accompany him and his children on a Grade 11 class trip to Tobago to construct a school there. Hettinga returned to Tobago in 2001; then, in 2002, he volunteered — again with his brother — to take part in a 10-day project designing an orphanage in Kenya with Engineering Ministries International.

The site was in western Kenya, where the population is predominantly made up of children whose parents have died of AIDS. When the volunteers visited the hospital there, Hettinga was welcomed by the nursing staff, who came out to show their appreciation with song. Then they went inside and saw babies afflicted with AIDS convulsing in their cribs. “It was both emotionally high and low at the same time,” Hettinga says.

In the spring of 2003, Hettinga began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity ( He has been on three Habitat trips to date, visiting destinations as far-flung as Guatemala and Nicaragua. This year, he will take part in a build in El Salvador.

In each case, Hettinga and other volunteers work alongside the family that will eventually occupy the house. The family’s company, Hettinga says, is the best part of the experience. “The work is humbling in so many ways because the grandmothers can haul more water than we can,” he says. “I love working with Habitat because you can see concrete solutions for the families. It is right there in front of you.”

A Habitat house typically takes about five weeks to build. Volunteers enter at different phases of the project, digging the trenches, framing the structure and installing drywall.

Hettinga — a University of Calgary graduate in geology who has added a certified financial planner designation to his credentials — donates two weeks of his vacation time and covers his own expenses on each trip. The work is hard, he says, but the rewards are many.

“You meet great people along the way,” he says. “All the neighbourhood kids flock to the job site. There will be days when there are 15 kids on the sand pile helping fill up the wheelbarrows.”

On water breaks, Hettinga and his wife, Joyce, who accompanies him on the trips, make paper airplanes with the kids, draw pictures or play baseball. One day, in Honduras, an eight-year-old girl slipped a little string-and-bead bracelet off her wrist and handed it to Joyce as a way of thanking her. “Apart from funerals,” says Hettinga, “it was the only time I remember crying.”

Getting to meet the families is the best part of the experience by far, agrees Audrey Sauder, a CFP with Armstrong & Quaile Associates Inc. in Waterloo, Ont., who has donated one week every summer to Habitat projects for the past four years.

“These are all families working in low-income jobs who just want to move up like everyone else,” she says. “And you are giving them that opportunity.”

Sauder has always been handy. When Jimmy Carter started getting publicity for his work for Habitat for Humanity, she thought, “What a neat idea.” But she was reluctant to sign on: “I thought, if I went to a build, most of the men would be doing all the building and they would just tell me to get the hammers and nails.”

Then, four years ago, Habitat’s Waterloo, Ont., branch hosted an all-women’s build, a single-family home in Kitchener, Ont. Sauder jumped at the chance to participate, and she has built for Habitat every year since. She prefers the framing stage, so she tries to align her annual one-week vacation-time donation to the early days of a building project.

“You can’t describe it,” she says of the experience. “You just feel so proud when you see the finished house. It’s empowering. We’re giving someone an affordable home, and we are actually building it with our own hands.

@page_break@“Everybody needs a helping hand at some point, regardless of his or her situation,” she says. “I believe that very strongly. I also believe that what goes around comes around. The more you give out, the more you get back.”

What is more, working on a Habitat project affords Sauder a completely different experience than she has at the office every day. “At work, I work independently,” she says. “There are no group dynamics. I thought it would be interesting to see how I work in a group. It’s not my strong point.”

All the same, she acknowledges the similarities of constructing a building and working as a financial planner. In both, she says, “You’re building for the future.” IE