The house the Mercy girls built

CLAPS and cheers heralded their arrival and while it wasn’t all a song and dance, students plumbed, painted and plastered as they saw a shell transform into a first-ever home for three generations of a family that had lived in a dark shack.

On a Cape Town site where snakes slither in the grass, the school crest from Cork’s Mount Mercy College now graces one of the houses completed by the volunteers with the Niall Mellon Township Trust.

Students Niamh O’Shea, Aoife Brady, Eimear O’Callaghan and Grace Kelleher recall, in diary format, a recent week spent with their teacher Alex Savage in the township of Witsand.

The girls joined over 600 volunteers in building 165 houses.

Day 1

After a physically and mentally demanding 12-hour flight, with just two hours sleep, we arrived into Cape Town to be greeted by a joyous cultural singing group who clapped and cheered and held banners welcoming all the Irish volunteers. It truly hit home how much of an impact we were making on these people’s lives. After a freshen-up and a presentation of local produce, a 40-minute bus trip brought us to Witsand, Atlantis, and to an inspiring and motivational speech from Niall Mellon, community leaders and team leaders were grouped into colour teams. It was truly unbelievable how welcoming and friendly everyone was to both veterans and new volunteers.

When we paraded down the street we were overwhelmed with emotions varying from guilt and sorrow to hope and excitement about the days to come.

Day 2

Being reasonably unskilled teenagers, we thought we wouldn’t be involved in the trade work — but we were. Aoife was a carpenter, Niamh a plumber, Eimear was making window frames and Grace was painting.

During the morning we strolled for a few minutes, security guards in tow, to see the shacks but, more importantly, the difference between life in a shack and the life these people will have in a house.

Having bonded with our Lime Green team, we met fellow Corkonians for a county photo. After being warned about snakes on site, everyone was wary and certain people took the opportunity to take advantage of the more vulnerable among us by throwing a fake snake. After lunch we were taken to see shacks and to talk to the people living there. On our way there were young children crowding around us fascinated by our cameras. The young children walked barefoot despite numerous shards of glass.

Day 3

Today, we experienced different areas of building as we switched around jobs and met new people. Philip, the plumber was always around if you needed a hand and always made you feel at home. After befriending the “father figure”, Patrick Cotter of the lime team, we all felt more relaxed and at ease. At midday we travelled to a nearby creche where we were greeted by the joyful sounds of children singing and dancing. We played with the children for a while and we were left with once-in-a-lifetime memories.

Day 4

We arrived on site at 7.45am. We were well into the routine at this stage of arriving on site, meeting our team leaders, getting organised, getting our hard hats and a Berrocca or two if needed. After loading on the layers of sun cream, one of the “foremen”, Mary, assigned us our jobs for the day ahead. Aoife was on plumbing, such as assembling taps for the sinks, baths and cisterns for the toilets, Niamh and Grace were sanding and painting the door frames in three or four houses, and Eimear was plastering, floating and fetching materials.

The row of houses that we had to build were at different stages. At the top of the site they were mixing cement and brick laying and at the bottom of the site ourselves, along with other volunteers, were involved in carpentry, painting, plumbing and doing the general finishing touches of the houses.

Before we knew it, it was our 10 o’clock break. Some stayed out, absorbing the sunlight, while others sat in one of the houses enjoying a song or two. After break, we endured a new challenge of participating in a group task of tiling a roof. It involved a chain of people passing tiles from one person to another until the roof was finally built. With the temperatures rising over 30 degrees it was one of the most difficult jobs yet. Towards the end of the day, after a hard day’s work, at 4.45pm everyone began to tidy up and get organised to leave the site. We headed back on the buses where a few took a much-needed nap.

Day 5

As our week was coming to an end, it was mainly painting that needed to be done. Foreman Mary decided to paint the Mount Mercy crest on one of the houses. Eimear, along with the other plasterers, had plastered the house the day before, Niamh had plumbed inside, Aoife helped the carpenters hang the doors, Grace sanded and painted the doors and Alex painted the interior of the house. We e-mailed the school to get a copy of the crest and organised for a volunteer who was particularly good at painting to draw on the crest. We were very proud of our Mount Mercy house as we were all involved in the building and completion of it. We knew this house would be here for years to come and would signify our hard work and the other volunteers’ hard work, not just during the week building houses, but throughout the year of fundraising as well. As the week was drawing to a close, every volunteer worked hard on site.

We were very appreciative of the 40-minute bus ride back to sit back and reflect on the week and look forward to the emotional day ahead of handing over the houses.

With 20 students on site, the charity organised a “teen night” for us to meet, over a pizza, new friends and other people from different teams.

Day 6

Our last day and it was hard to believe the week was nearly over. We completed the finishing touches to the houses, such as painting the window sills, varnishing the doors and painting the exterior. We then took a walk up to the emerald green team to visit their house which they dedicated to a student from their school who had passed away tragically during the year.

They titled the house “Teach Claire” and it was very emotional to see the ending to her life but also acknowledge the new beginning a family would have living in their home.

The lime green team gathered around and welcomed a family to their new home. The family consisted of a single father, his two children, and the grandmother. They were overwhelmed with emotion as they saw for the first time in 15 years, a home with a locked door, windows, running water and separate bedrooms. It was neatly presented with a garden out front which was completed by the gardening team that day.

It was surprisingly difficult to witness the handing over of the house, even though it was a very positive day it also highlighted the hardship these people endured for 15 years. We stood in for photos with the family and it was a extremely emotional day for all concerned. Our team built a total of nine houses throughout the week.

The difference from the shells of houses and foundations that were there at the start of the week and now safe homes for shack dwellers was truly unbelievable. The work 600 volunteers completed throughout the week, skilled and unskilled workers together, did something truly amazing and made a real difference.

* The charity will celebrate its 10th annual blitz in November 2012. For anyone interested contact or call 01 4948200


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