Safe, Affordable Homes Build Foundation for a Strong Community

“There are four new families who live at the end of the block and they have invited us to birthday parties and to their church services,” said Cynthia Stubblefield. “We actually know our neighbors by their first names.”

Stubblefield, whose family recently moved into a newly built Habitat home near Kountze Park, located between Sprague and Laird streets on 22nd Street, is now seeing a resurgence of new families – and lots of kids.


Homeowner Cynthia Stubblefield and her family in front of their new home. From left to right: Kevin Sr., Kevin Jr., Octavia, Cynthia, Shamall and Isaac.

Tuesday night, Stubblefield and neighbors, employees of First National Bank and Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, along with community groups celebrated the completion of Habitat’s revitalization efforts in the Kountze Park neighborhood.

They did so amid the glow of holiday lights and decorations of 10 new Habitat homes, plus four existing neighborhood homes, First National employees decorated last week in a one-day blitz to kick off its  “Give Joy” campaign. “Give Joy is a special initiative to encourage holiday donations to Habitat Omaha and Habitat chapters across the bank’s footprint to continue First National’s commitment to providing safe and affordable housing to those in need.


Omaha community groups, homeowners and neighbors gathered at 3915 N. 22nd Street to “Give Joy.”

“Every family deserves a stable place to call home,” said Jerry O’Flanagan, First National Bank’s Executive Vice President, Consumer Banking Group. “We support our commitment to stable housing by partnering with organizations like Habitat for Humanity so that families not only get a home, but also the joy that comes with feeling independent and safe.”

“First National Bank cares,” said Amanda Brewer, Habitat for Humanity of Omaha’s Executive Director and President. “They care about families, neighborhoods and our community. As a trusted and loyal Habitat Omaha ally, they have not only provided significant financial support, but hundreds of volunteer hours to help transform the Kountze Park neighborhood.  Through this partnership, 42 more families will be celebrating the holidays in their very own home this year.  We thank First National Bank for giving joy!”

O’Flanagan noted how fitting the celebration was, as the neighborhood is named after the Kountze family that founded First National Bank.


Jerry O’Flanagan, First National Bank’s Executive Vice President, Consumer Banking Group, Amanda Brewer, Habitat for Humanity of Omaha’s Executive Director and President and homeowner Cynthia Stubblefield make remarks at the celebration.

“They changed my life coming in here,” said Edwina Sheppard, who has lived in the neighborhood for 42 years. “I can stay in my home. It has value again. It’s a neighborhood again.”

O’Flanagan says with community-based efforts like the “Give Joy,” campaign, he believes more communities in Omaha and across the bank’s seven-state service area will see celebrations just like the Kountze Park neighborhood. “Over the next five years, our goal is to see 5,000 housing units constructed, rehabilitated and financed in communities across our footprint from First National Bank’s investments and grants to organizations that are committed to creating access to stable, affordable housing,” said O’Flanagan.


Neighbor Edwina Sheppard and granddaughter Ayrian Calloway at the home she’s lived in for more than 40 years.

Your contribution, no matter the size, will truly help make a difference for countless families…neighborhoods…and communities. Please join us by donating today to your local Habitat affiliate and giving joy to others.

Journalists seeking downloadable images, please visit our newsroom.

About “Give Joy”

We believe everyone deserves a home – a place where families can find peace and joy and make memories that last a lifetime. That’s why First National Bank is partnering with Habitat for Humanity affiliates across our service areas to “Give Joy” this holiday season to those who need it most.

“Give Joy” is a special initiative to continue the bank’s commitment of providing safe and affordable housing so that deserving families can experience what it truly feels like to be home for the holidays… this season and many more to come.

Your contribution, no matter the size, will truly help make a difference for countless families…neighborhoods…and communities. Please join us by donating today to your local Habitat affiliate and giving joy to others.


Healing Through Humanity, Part 3 of 3

This is the final excerpt in my three-part blog series, “Cemented.” Read part 1 and part 2.

Healing Through Humanity

This trip allowed me to heal.  Throughout the weeks I was there, I was able to see the graciousness of humanity’s hearts.  I remembered that helping others matters.  I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with the family we were helping, supporting, loving.

Remembering some of my Bulgarian language skills, I was able to converse with the family and they explained to me what this meant to them and their family.  We were calming their anxious hearts by not having to worry about a safe home for their two young boys.  They were living with many other people and if I understood correctly, in the kitchen of another’s home.  Now their children have the opportunity to grow up being kids and able to focus on school and family.  They will finally have a place to call home.

I know I have  taken for granted the fact that I have a place to call home, a place to be myself, a place to restart, rest, and make memories.  I was reminded that all acts of care in this world are worth something.  If we are capable to help, we must help.  I was reminded on this trip by a fellow First National employee that we can’t all give in the same way.  We must give in the ways we are capable of.  If you cannot give money, give with your hands, give with your time.  Give and help in any way that you can.  Another First National Bank Member reminded me that the simplest conversations can change whole person’s life, self-worth, and thoughts.

Humanitarian work to me isn’t always the most obvious things we do.  It can be simple acts of kindness, a gesture of care, speaking for those without a voice, teaching those to speak for themselves, empowering and encouraging those around us, or role modeling the behavior you wish others to follow.  We must all learn we are in this together, we are all part of the same human family.  We are all part of one big community and we must take care of each other.

There are many stories that arise when I think of the questions I have asked myself.  I realized that I cannot prevent the world from pain, I alone cannot save it and I relish in the fact that there are many others out there who are changing the world.  It will not take one person, it will take us working together in our communities and every opportunity matters.

One story comes to mind when I think of seeds growing.  When I first started at the Social Support Center, my coworkers and I struggled on where to start.  They decided they wanted to work with the mainstream kids in the schools.  I of course agreed, but felt it equally important to work with the Roma population and the orphanage youth.  They needed to be considered, it needed to matter.

At first I couldn’t understand their strong hesitation, for they made it clear that those populations were lazy and wouldn’t want to participate.  They felt the orphan youth and Roma populations weren’t as smart because they couldn’t read or write.  They felt they were disruptive and corrupt, which wasn’t necessarily incorrect for most.   My coworkers weren’t bad people, this idea was new to them.  What I realized is that I had to plant those seeds before they could grow.  They needed someone to show them that it mattered, that someone could care.  I myself started to work with the Roma population and the children in the orphanage.  At first these populations weren’t allowed in the Social Support Center.

I built relationships with these groups and began to figure out what their needs were and what I was capable of providing.  I started coming up with life skill activities and games.  Once in a while, I would ask my coworkers if they would like to participate with me.  They turned me down many times.  My coworkers would start to ask how activities were going and if they were learning or if they cared.  To their disbelief, I said yes.  I would encourage them to see for themselves and participate with us.

After some time, the orphan youth were then allowed into the Center.   Of course, it didn’t start out the best.  The children came in and the staff would find a reason to validate the way they felt and at times, the youth would prove it to them.  In fairness, both parties needed to plant seeds of trust before a relationship could grow.  I was the only one who would work with them, and after some time, one by one my coworkers started to want to work with them, too.

Since I had built a relationship with the youth, I could correct their behavior when they acted out.  There were times the youth needed to leave the Center and start fresh another day.  After more time, I created behavioral guidelines for being able to participate in our activities, which would hold the youth accountable for their actions.  At first they hesitated, but overall they loved being at the Center and loved participating in all the activities and therefore followed the guidelines.

Still with much hesitation, I now had a relationship with my coworkers where I could be bolder.  I remember having more honest and stern conversations with them about working more closely with the Roma population.  I told them that if you want the Roma population to be part of your culture, you must invite them in.  If you want them to learn to read and write, why not teach them?

After more time, my coworkers began to help me create for and teach the orphan youth (which also housed many of the Roma population) and built very respectful and close relationships with them.  Toward the end of my service, I saw the seeds in full bloom.  Without me saying anything, my coworkers developed a plan for the youth and were excited to share it with me.  They decided to let the community Roma population into the Center and that they wanted to work in the Roma schools with them as well.

At first, not many Roma youth and their parents wanted to come to the Center.  My coworkers were frustrated, but came up with another plan on their own.  They told me they were going to walk through the Roma neighborhoods and knock door to door to sign the youth up for activities we would provide.  They wanted to introduce themselves and make it known that they cared.

colgateI wish I would have captured this moment with a camera.  My coworkers and I walked to the entrance of a Roma neighborhood and stopped.  There were four of them.  They were so nervous and decided to hold hands.  They asked me if I wanted to hold their hands and I said no.  I said I will follow you from behind because you deserve to lead the way.  I watched in utter amazement.  My coworkers entered a world they at first believed to be bad.

I watched them knock on many doors and had many Roma families sign up. They were also all invited to a meeting about the activities we would like to provide.  When the meeting came, the room was so full with parents and youth, you were elbow to elbow with them.

They didn’t need me to lead anymore.  They started doing activities and sessions, for life skills on their own.  We divided our time between many different schools, sessions at the Center, and in the orphanage.

A very wise First National Bank member told me, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”  -Nelson Mandela

This concludes part 3 of my three-part blog series, “Cemented.” Thanks for reading!

Returning to Bulgaria, Part 2 of 3

This is part 2 in my three-part series, “Cemented.” Catch up with part one.

Returning to Bulgaria

When I arrived in the United States, I felt shocked and overwhelmed.  Everything looked so clean, there was so much space, and I saw my home country through a different pair of eyes.  I remember driving through the poorer part of our town, saying these are nice houses, and my family looking at me like I was crazy.   Again, those houses were not what they appeared.

I felt lost when I returned home, I tried to forget everything I had done and those that I left behind.  I had a terribly difficult time readjusting back in the United States. Everyone’s lives had moved on, while mine had stood still, until I returned home.  Everything seemed so easy and I felt angry at Americans for taking so much for granted, when in truth, I forgot that we all can, and that I should help remind us of what we should all be grateful for.

I felt lost without “my kids” and wanted to surround myself with those in need.  I took a job at an Emergency Shelter for At-Risk Youth, as a lead youth specialist.  I began to feel like me again and enjoyed what I was doing.  After about a year and a half, I decided my heart couldn’t take any more human service work.  Many reasons were the cause of this, but one that stands out, was I had what many would call ‘compassion fatigue.’

While in Bulgaria, I was so immersed in my surroundings that most things became my new normal and I had blocked out all the hardships that I faced.  After working at the shelter for some time, I started to accept and remember all the devastation that I saw.  This was now the only thing I could focus on, pain and suffering was all around me.  I was consumed with remembering all the horrible things that happened that I couldn’t prevent and how I couldn’t save the world, so what’s the point.

My mind and heart began to question everything I have done.  My entire being was filled with guilt.  I tormented myself with questions like; Was it enough?  Could I have done more?  Do they know how much I loved and cared for them?  Will they remember the life skills taught, does that matter when you have no family, no continuous support?  Will they ever be ok?  Did I abandon them?  Did I betray them?  Worst of all, did I hurt them?  Did I give false ideas or hope?  I shut my heart off, it was too painful.  That fire that was so bright got blown out by the wind, cooled off by the water, and tamed by the ground.

These questions consumed me for almost 3 ½ years.  Those closest to me tried to convince me otherwise and at the time I dismissed the seeds they were planting.   I got angry at the idea of helping others.  What could I do? People don’t really care about other people, do they?

By the grace of God, by those seeds planted, my questions were going to be answered and that fire that no longer burnt so bright was going to get more fuel.

To my surprise, First National Bank of Omaha was giving 6 employees and 6 customers an opportunity to take part in a Habitat for Humanity Global Village Trip to Bulgaria.  Something happened to my heart when I heard the news.  The wheels in my brain started turning.  The application process and the potential opportunity to return back to my second home,  was reminding me that there is a purpose to humanity, a purpose to be a part of change, and that change is possible, when we all share the roles of helping those in need, and planting those seeds to help humanity grow.

I had an opportunity to help Bulgarians, help a family, help a community, in a way I wasn’t able to before.  In a way that I wish I could have at the time.  All “my kids” from the Shelter from Bulgaria, all shared many common traits.  They all wanted a family, safety, security, stability, love, and a place to call home.  In the end, no matter where you are, people are people.  We all want and deserve to have our basic needs met.  This is a right I want to fight for, a basic human right we should all be fighting for.  I want to fight for children to grow up as children and not to have to worry about their basic needs.

My seeds started to grow, and I was passionate about this cause, because I agree with the core element of what it means to have or develop a successful community.  In order to be your best self, you must first meet your basic needs.  Community members must feel safe and have access to appropriate shelter, in order to start their days productively.

I understood and had seen first-hand the turmoil and emotional despair that not having housing can take on a community and its members.  It can feel uncertain and segregates its community members by who needs the most help.  It can cause panic in orphaned youth who are getting ready to turn 18 and families that have to support multiple generations.   Bulgarian houses might appear big, but they housed multiple generations and the foundation and pipes were not efficient, not always safe, especially in the Roma neighborhoods.  They would have extreme overcrowding and exterior walls of the house completely missing.

Having housing, especially safe housing, can allow members of the community to focus on productivity, self-worth, and healthy living.  I have seen first-hand unsafe housing, physically and emotionally, in Bulgaria and the United States.  I have witnessed violence erupt because of the lack of personal space and sickness develop because of a lack of clean running water and corroding pipes.  There were older community members dying from lack of heat in the winter.  In Bulgaria, I myself  lost hot water in the winter for three months because the pipes froze.

As you know, no one can focus on the future and development when they are worried about safe shelter and a place to call home.  Emotionally, not having a safe home is enough to corrupt anyone’s heart and mind.  Emotional instability can cause behavioral problems.  When you have behavioral problems, it becomes increasingly difficult throughout the years to become a productive member of society.

While in Bulgaria, the biggest challenge that I faced was watching the orphan youth turn 18 and have no place to go.  There are very strict guidelines and a lack of resources in Bulgaria for youth with housing needs, especially minority youth.  When the orphaned youth turned 18, they were given one suitcase to fit all their belongings and a one-way ticket to wherever they wanted to end up in Bulgaria.  As I have stated, I worked very closely with human trafficking.  Human trafficking continues because there is a lack of jobs, support, and housing for those in need.  The youth don’t have a choice.  They can struggle on the streets or struggle with food and a roof over their head.  When you don’t have stability in your life, there aren’t any laws or moral codes to follow.  You must survive.

This concludes part 2 of my three-part series, “Cemented.” Read the last installment, “Healing Through Humanity.”

Cemented, Part 1 of 3


The First National Bank/Habitat Global Village Trip to Bulgaria cemented the fact that giving to others matters.  Planting seeds of hope and love in the hearts of others matters.  No matter the perceived impact you make- how big or small- all acts of love, kindness, and helping others matter.

I have always been a driven and compassionate individual, with a fire inside of me that no wind could blow out, no water could calm, and no earth could tame. I am a person who has wanted nothing but to change the entire world. A truth that was possible. Possible in a way at first, I misunderstood, and in a way that I found, I couldn’t do solely on my own.

My Bulgarian journey didn’t start with Habitat for Humanity.  About seven years ago, I swore in as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria.

A horse and buggy in Bulgaria.

When I first arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, I noticed the cement apartments everywhere, which were left over from the communist society.  I thought to myself, I can do this, this isn’t that bad.  We were treated like royalty, stayed at nice hotels and ate the best food for the first week or so of our 27-month journey.

We were then split into small groups of four to five people and taken to host sites to begin our three month language training process.  When I arrived at the host site, I noticed minor things, horse and buggies still actively running, farm animals moving with the flow of traffic, and seemingly big houses.  Again, I thought ok, this isn’t too bad.

After the rigorous language training, I was placed in a town called Dolna Banya, for the next two years.  My first priority was to immerse myself in the culture, town, build relationships, and strengthen my Bulgarian language skills.

I worked in an orphanage and a Social Support Center that offered resources, free counseling, and parental guidance.  The center officially opened a month before I arrived. In the beginning, one of the challenges we faced was having youth come to the center and community to use our free resources. The community wasn’t familiar with the idea of teaching or learning life skills, which is why being able to implement the activities in such a short amount of time, with some support from our community, ended up being our greatest success.

My primary assignment was working with at-risk youth. Weekly my co-workers and I would plan and implement activities for the youth and take those activities to the high schools and kindergarten classes at least three to four times a month. The youth would also come to the center where we provided games, homework assistance and more serious activities and guidance on topics such as trafficking of persons and sexual health education and awareness.

I organized many summer camps for orphan and community youth.  We had courses for English, drawing, nature (personal discovery), and crafts (making something from nothing).  I also organized, planned, and implemented prevention and awareness camps for trafficking of persons, dental hygiene, emotion awareness, and AIDS/HIV across Bulgaria.

The original neighborhood park.

One of my favorite projects completed in Peace Corps, was the restoration of a children’s park.  I walked by the same park for eight months, where I never saw one child playing.  It was completely dilapidated.  It was rare to see a nice area for community members to find peace and play.  One day my boss asked me what we should do for our 1 year anniversary, of the Social Support Center, which happened to fall on the same day as, “Children’s Day.”  I asked her where her children played.  There was a moment of silence, and she said, there isn’t anywhere to play.

Children playing in the park on Children’s Day after renovations and improvements.

My boss loved the idea and took it to the Municipality, which funded the restoration of the park.  After about a month of hard work, using many resources, we were able to finish the park, which included a swing, jungle gym, sand pit, monkey bars, and many interactive games painted on the ground.  For the remainder of my stay, I saw children, youth, and parents enjoy the park.

Of course, there were many more needs like safe and affordable housing, job security, mental health care, health care and more, but I had to figure out what I was capable of providing and focus on those strengths.
Sometimes things aren’t always as they appear.   It becomes an interesting cycle when you live in a native country for long periods of time.  At first nothing appeared to be that devastating.  I couldn’t figure out why people seemed so sad, felt so unsafe, so unmotivated.  After some time, the novelty and excitement of the experience wore off and I started to become a Bulgarian, I started to see the reality of their living.

The houses seemed worse than I remember, the streets were more damaged than before, the resources became scarcer, trash cans seemed to be for meals instead of disposing waste, the winters seemed colder, clothing became more torn and the nights became more unsafe.   At this point, I understood the language as my own, the stories seemed darker, the cries became louder, the needs seemed greater, and the pain became my own.

The abuse witnessed and the instability and insecurity became my new norm. Again, I cycled back to thinking things don’t appear to be that bad.  Overall, at the end of my service, I felt proud for what was accomplished.  I felt worn out and as if I had given my all.
My views changed, I realized I didn’t save the world, but maybe I made a contribution to the youth and community members in my Bulgarian town.   A contribution that I knew would continue with the knowledge and training materials my Bulgarian co-workers would continue to share and teach.  I hoped I had given them hope to empower our youth and to fill the race gap, to build a stronger and safer community by one common understanding; that all the youth were the future and it is up to the individual families and community members to work together to support them, guide them, keep them safe, and love them.


With some of the local children.

Leaving the youth, who I cried with, worked with, taught and fought for, was the most devastating part of the goodbye.  My heart felt broken, tears couldn’t be held back, and I began to feel unsatisfied.  Even though I prepared “my kids” for my departure, it didn’t make things any easier.  I was begged to stay and “my kids” couldn’t stop crying.  As I worked my way down the long road to my apartment, they screamed and chased after me behind the orphanage gates.  They had to be held back by security and staff so they couldn’t leave the grounds.  They reached their hands out and called my name.  I could hear them for most of my walk home.  This in fact, was the longest walk of my life.

This is part 1 of my three-part series, “Cemented.” Read part 2, “Returning to Bulgaria.”

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 5 of 5

This post is the fifth in a five-part series: On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Need to catch up?  Read parts onetwothree and four.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer


Lest the reader (or my teammates) think that Bulgaria represents the completion of a journey for me, little could be further from the truth.

My future employer did indeed wait (im)patiently for my return, and I joyfully and wholeheartedly accepted a contract with the firm belief that somehow I will find a way to make up a loss of income created by the change.  I simply could not refuse this chance to directly impact the educational advancement of high school students who are also learning the English language, and especially English learners who have most often experienced limited or interrupted formal education due to their experiences of resettlement to the United States under refugee status.

With the courage to make this return to the classroom full-time, I’m fulfilling a dream of being a writer who is also a teacher of writing.

Although I hope that traveling abroad to a refugee camp might one day be in my future, for now I’m content working in a culturally dissimilar area of my own city with the realization that it may prove just as challenging and just as impactful.

And finally, although one should not try to plan against what the Universe has in store, super long-range I would like to examine how the internet might be used to help connect U.S. teachers with understaffed camp teachers for purposes of better preparing pre-arrival students with academic English skills, thus reducing the barrier to educational opportunity before it ever has a chance to erect itself. So many walls…

(Hey, Ken.  Remember when I said, my life is a vacation?  I was serious.)

The End…or…The Beginning of the Next Chapter 🙂

This is the last post in the 5-part series On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.

Thanks for reading!

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 4 of 5

This is part 4 of a 5-part series On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall. Need to catch up? Read parts onetwo, and three.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

Discovering My Life Beyond The Wall

Since returning home, I’ve begun to forgive myself for what felt like a defect in my ability to do good.  If we lack the capacity to critically self-reflect on our underlying purpose or the underlying beliefs that fuel our sense of altruism, we run the risk of imposing what we think is good without consciously understanding why.   This is not an insight that has come easily to me, but one that I work to remain vigilant of.

I’ve also realized that even though our approach is unrelated, Habitat and I are in the business of (re)building lives – we simply offer support through different systems. One is not any more worthwhile an endeavor than the other, both supports may be needed by any one individual.

And so it was that I discovered that the answer to what is mine to do existed well beyond The Wall.

Photo: Diane Mora

Photo: Diane Mora

“What is mine to do?”  One word, “Teach.”  With the possible exception of hospice volunteering, nothing yet surpasses the sense of purpose my life holds as it does when I am teaching.  Over the summer I had spent a month with an urban high school class of newcomers (recently resettled to Kansas City from refugee camps around the world).  I fell in love with those students.  At this point in my life, I can’t think of anything else I want to spend my time doing.  Little compares in its ability to increase the self-efficacy and empowerment of another person to the extent that facilitating someone’s learning does.

The Global Village trip to Bulgaria was not my first service-travel experience abroad nor in the U.S., but it will absolutely remain unforgettable for many reasons.  Not the least of which is what I experienced at The Wall.  But scaling The Wall has led me back to something I love and something that gives my life its sense of purpose.  For that I am deeply indebted to First National Bank.

This concludes part 4 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Read what happens next in the Afterward.

Thanks for reading!

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 3 of 5

This is part 3 of a 5-series post, On Bulgaria:  Life Beyond the Wall.  Not caught up? Read parts one and two.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

Encountering My Self at The Wall

It was Thursday morning, the fourth work day.  Everyone was assembled in the dining room enjoying what was starting to become a monotonous breakfast buffet of soft-scrambled and hard-boiled eggs.  This was Victor’s day to give the morning benediction before we loaded ourselves onto the bus that took us to the build site.  Victor’s words were crafted from insights he had experienced over the previous days while contributing his labor to the construction of The Wall. He’d artfully titled his observations something like “Thoughts at the Wall”.

I can’t remember every point he made that morning, and I imagine I’m not alone in my wish to now have a recording of exactly what he did say.  I do remember this – in his closing remarks Victor invited each of us to be open to what we might encounter at The Wall.

Afterward, I caught up to Victor as everyone walked to the bus. I had a few brief minutes to compliment him and mention an epiphany I’d had at The Wall only the day before, but we were quickly surrounded by the good-natured chatter and banter of everyone else once we climbed inside and sat down.  I had appreciated his words, but his experience was vastly different from my own. I was lost in my thoughts by the time we arrived at the build site.

Like a mendicant but with a desire to repay the privilege of her trip, I appreciated the manual aspects of the tasks I was given that helped me relax my mind.  I was grateful for work that enabled me to prove I could still move my body and use the muscles in my neck and shoulder without severe pain.  Being part of a group eased the sense of aloneness that so often accompanies grief, and especially when the loss has been your last surviving parent.

Although I was quiet in comparison, I welcomed the community of sounds that emanated from various places in and around the house where my teammates performed their work.  Two sounds were always the most prominent.  Ken’s laugh  – it seemed to make everything twice as funny because its’ pitch was

so at odds with his tall, muscular stature.  The other was the churn and clank of the cement mixer  – it provided such a constant hum of white noise that its’ alternating times of silence and mixing were often what signaled me to the beginning and ending of our breaks.

In addition to the regularity of those two sounds, during my days working in the attic I could usually catch the strains of music wafting up from below.  I noted how the tone of everyone’s voices carried a good natured quality that would have fooled anyone passing by of the fact that we were relative strangers to each other.  Only occasionally was the pleasantness of this homespun symphony interrupted by admonishments from our Bulgarian site manager, Assya.  In fairness, her tone probably seemed more severe than it actually was because of how her accent syncopated the instructions she was forced to deliver to us in English.

On the afternoon of the third day, I took my place at The Wall.  Surrendering myself to chance, I allowed the music to guide the pace of my hand and arm in their repetitive motions of moving the sanding bricks across the concrete’s surface.  I heard with only a passing interest the conversations around me. Otherwise, I was wholly absorbed in my task at The Wall.

If I hadn’t been so quiet I might have missed what happened next.  What is mine to do?   Was my being here and doing this particular task really the most purposeful, life changing action I could take on behalf of another?

The answer followed swiftly on the heels of the question with such an acute prick of clarity that in the context of where I stood, my first emotion was pure dejection.   I knew unequivocally that the act of building a house was not my answer to “What is mine to do?”.  Even though I didn’t speak it aloud, I immediately wished I could take back the thought.  Everyone around me appeared completely confident about what we were doing and accomplishing on this trip.  So much so that anyone might have thought we held the golden keys to the City of Greatest Impact.

I did a gut check – I wasn’t resentful of the work I’d been assigned to do.  On the contrary, each day felt like a vacation to me. Probably because it was so removed from the recent stress of my life.

“What is mine to do?”  I was so sad and unforgiving of myself at this point in the trip.  “What”, I wondered, “is wrong with me?”  Given all the generosity making my participation possible, who could I possibly talk to?  No one here would ever understand.  If anything, I would only end up feeling even more on the fringe of things.

I’d forgotten a truth Gregg Levoy writes about in his book Callings, “Calls emerge as readily from the ground as from the sky, as much from the exhortations of the common life as from our spiritual ideals.”

This concludes part 3 of a 5-part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond the Wall.  Read what happens next in part 4:  Discovering My Life Beyond the Wall.

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 2 of 5

This is the second in a five-part series, On Bulgaria:  Life Beyond the Wall.  Need to catch up?  Read part one.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

To say I was “terrified” of discovering what would be mine to do on the build site, is definitely an exaggeration.  Curious, yes.  Terrified, no.  Granted, I’m not a regular shopper at Home Depot or Lowe’s.  Trips to my local Restore (a residential building supply thrift store operated by Habitat for Humanity) are usually for the purpose of donating items rather than purchasing them.  I enjoy refinishing the occasional piece of furniture.  However, I leave all but the smallest household repairs and all remodeling projects to the experts.

As Ken and Chad discovered, I do did have an irrational fear of climbing down ladders.  A fear that I was quickly forced to face (and eventually conquer) each time necessity compelled me to descend the narrow wooden ladder that rested at a sharp angle through the attic’s only opening.  If I wanted to pee, eat, or go home I had to descend that ladder;  all three of these proved to be pretty good motivators for overcoming fear.

My otherwise fearless participation was interrupted only by a bout of nausea and vomiting one afternoon on the way back to our hotel after a full day’s work.  I had repeatedly eaten street food in China without any side effect.  I’d done nothing of the kind in Bulgaria, and I had no idea what overcame me.  I had been pushing through my tasks for the better part of the workday while trying to ignore a deep sense of tiredness and nausea.  In hindsight, I think by the time we got on the bus my body decided it was going to force me to slow down and take stock one way or another.  Thank goodness our bus driver had rapid reflexes enabling him to quickly pull curbside upon request.  Puking into a unemptied, galvanized metal trash can (thankfully present on the sidewalk of that residential street) was not an example of my finest hour.  Once we made it back to the hotel I took myself straight to bed while everyone else went out for a sushi dinner.  From five o’clock that evening until the next morning, I vacillated between a fitful sleep and short periods of semi-wakefulness.

I probably sound like a wimp.  In comparison to other volunteer service and humanitarian aid trips I’ve made in and outside the United States, the Global Village trip to Bulgaria with Habitat was by far the easiest.  Mind you, it was physically strenuous but our accommodations were the best I’ve ever had for a service travel engagement.  We had no need to expend any effort thinking about meals, transportation, or safety of any kind.  All we had to do was show up.

Be that as it may, that night I knew I had hit a very different kind of wall.  A wall I had probably been building for several months.  The short explanation is that I thought I could hide myself from grief while hiding my exhaustion from everyone else.  Most foolishly, I thought throwing myself into a project doing good for others would cure me of both.

Only nine weeks prior to departing for Bulgaria, my mom had finally been overtaken by dementia and leukemia.  She died the first night of the full moon in July.  I am now in the habit of watching for it to appear each month, and I remember noticing that it was present over Sofia several evenings as I looked out the window of my hotel. I may never look at a full moon again without thinking of her.

In those few weeks between her funeral and the start of our trip to Bulgaria I had traveled to Spain and back giving a presentation to international educators. I had only eleven days to unpack and repack my bags before meeting up with the Global Village team in Omaha.  As if that weren’t enough, with only nine short days to go before our trip I had received the second of two epidurals in my cervical spine to alleviate chronic neck and shoulder pain that had been nearly debilitating me for the seven months it had taken doctors to determine the cause. When I left Kansas City to meet up with my Global Village teammates, I thought no trip could have been more ill-timed than this one.  But I’d made a commitment, and I was bound and determined to keep it.

Underscoring this sense of poor timing was a phone call taken in my Omaha hotel room from a school expressing interest in an application I’d submitted for my dream job.  The opening was immediate and their need for a teacher was pressing.  Knowing I couldn’t respond to their requests for additional documents while on the trip, I had no choice but to hope they would determine I was worth waiting for.  I was having trouble sorting out how much of my angst was a result of the delays imposed by the trip versus my fears about taking a thirty percent pay cut to teach the specific population of students I longed to work with.

In the words of Pico Ilyer, I had “surrendered myself to chance” when I applied for the trip. I had surrendered to chance when I accepted the invitation. I was now surrendering on faith that whatever happened next was meant to be.  It was in that state of surrender that I now stood in wonder at The Wall.

This concludes part 2 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Read what happens next in part 3:  Encountering My Self at The Wall.

Thanks for reading.

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 1 of 5

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote: Pico Ilyer

Author’s Note:  This post is dedicated with heartfelt thanks and gratitude to each person on Team Bulgaria, Habitat for Humanity, and First National Bank who made my participation in the trip possible.

Thank you to those who shared your wisdom with me along the journey, invested time and resources in me as a (hopefully now better) person, and encouraged me through your actions to follow my heart.  I will carry a piece of you with me into the future with every intention that someone, somewhere might be the ultimate beneficiary of all you have given me.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I am especially indebted to teammate, Victor Dzirasa, for the morning benediction he called “Thoughts at the Wall.”  After sharing his insights and experience at The Wall, he encouraged each of us to be mindful of what The Wall had to teach us individually.

This is my story.

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria as a Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteer with one pair of work gloves and one seemingly innocent question, “What is mine to do?”  

The literal answer came quickly as I began helping two of my teammates install insulation in the home’s attic.  After that we were assigned the tasks of painting a waterproof primer on the home’s foundation, and eventually we became one of many who sanded the privacy wall on the south side of the property.

The metaphysical, however, was not so immediate.

Building the Wall

“The Wall” was constructed almost entirely of cement reaching seven or eight feet high, and ran the full length between two neighboring houses.  When dried to concrete, it separated the nearly grassless yards of two properties with its’ coarsely sanded, patio-gray finish.  In my opinion it looked too industrial for residential purposes compared to the wooden privacy fences that customarily run the perimeter of the midwestern backyards in my hometown.

There were three major stages of production at The Wall.  First, came the mixing of the cement, of which Victor was the Chief Mixer along with Pavlin who seemed always at the ready to shovel and fill the wheelbarrow with moist, dense product for use by other teammates who used it to construct the wall.  This second stage of The Wall’s team consisted of Shane, Zuhair, Patty, Colorado-Ashley and First-National-Carrie.


The Wall Constructors had organized themselves into a well-orchestrated process of throwing, spreading, and smoothing the cement mixture onto the wall’s frame.  Many of their gestures reminded me of how I used to spoon, spread, and smooth buttercream over cakes as a pastry chef.  In both cases, the goal was to work quickly yet precisely within a limited timeframe for maximum spreadability and smoothness.

Once each preceding day’s section of the wall had sufficiently dried and hardened, stage three involved sanding the concrete with plastic-handled rubbing bricks that were first dipped in buckets of water so they would simultaneously moisten the areas that needed re-smoothing.  This had the effect of creating a slag lifted from the dry concrete that could then be reworked back over the surface to a more even finish, ostensibly rubbing out the imperfections left behind during the original filling process.  Without benefit of any electrical sanding devices, the sanding procedure involved hours of circular strokes beginning overhead, moving downward to eye level, proceeding to the waist, lowering still further to knee height, until the process finally ended at ground level (surprisingly the most excruciating pain due to the bending it required). I doubt any of us would care to calculate how many hours were spent rubbing in this circular motion, section…by section…by section.


Although primitive, this method of hand sanding wasn’t entirely miserable.  At least not in my opinion. Carrie had a killer playlist that supplied endless hours of musical inspiration via her iPhone, Shane’s speakers, and my battery charger.  Her tastes include everything from Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee, to “Money Maker” by Ludacris, to Matchbox Twenty’s  “How Far We’ve Come.”  Meanwhile, an aqua blue, cloudless, sunny sky warmed us from overhead and the occasional draught of cooling breeze prevented us from becoming too overheated.  Getting into the groove while working at The Wall had more than a few moments of being  –  well, pretty groovy.

This concludes part 1 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Read what happens next in part 2: Fear and Wondering at The Wall.

Thanks for reading!