When Denver resident Kerri Tiernan picked up a copy of the Celtic Connection June, 2008, and read a story about the Niall Mellon Township Trust (NMTT), she had no idea how it would change so many lives, including hers.
The NMTT story began in 2002, when Irish Developer Niall Mellon began replacing the unhealthy substandard shacks lived in by impoverished families in the townships of South Africa with clean modern homes. Since then, Mellon’s charity has taught hundreds of township youth construction skills, and has recruited hundreds more volunteers to travel to South Africa for an annual “Building Blitz.” They have celebrated over 20,000 homes being built, which equates to 100,000 people now in new homes, and just finished building a school in Kenya in November.
Before volunteers are clear to join NMTT, they must raise between five and six thousand dollars. About $2,000 goes to logistical costs including flights, hotels, ground transportation, medical insurance, meals, construction kit, etc. and remaining goes to the building project.
Upon arrival to South Africa, the volunteers meet up with their assigned teams made up of a veteran construction forman and trades, project leader, and other volunteers. Volunteers are trained in construction skills to help them build a house over the next 7 days. During the course of the week teams eat breakfast at 6AM, board a bus at 7AM, and are onsite working from 8AM to 5PM.
Kerri was moved by the NMTT story that she read in 2008 and began making enquires to Ireland for details. By July of 2010, Kerri had inspired 3 more friends (Kathy McGee, Trish Nathan, Heidi Weidemueller) to commit to also volunteer and raise the needed funds for the project. In November of that same year the Colorado quartet became the first volunteer group from the States to go to South Africa for the Building Blitz.
“We hopped on the plane in Denver headed toward Cape Town, South Africa not knowing a sole,” recalled Tiernan. “We were met half way there in Heathrow Airport by several of the Irish Volunteers heading to South Africa as well….the amount of volunteers traveling overseas was very impressive to see as we landed at the airport in Cape Town to a large and warm welcome from the locals. Since that trip, our group has been back two more times and we are slated for our fourth trip this March!”
While “Team USA” was South Africa bound, Ann Walsh from Dublin was going through a similar rookie experience. “From the time I was a teenager I always tried to do some form of charitable work, but kids and work had taken over in recent years, and I needed a challenge. So, rather nervously I boarded a plane in November 2010 for Capetown, knowing no one, and hoping some poor Irish soul would take pity on me, and look after me for the few days! What I got, I never ever expected! By the time our plane landed in Capetown I had made friends like no others. I had heard of many stories and fables and tales of what the next seven days would entail – but as one chap said to me – ‘you really need to experience this week! Absolutely hard work, grueling heat, and times of complete exhaustion…. but do you mind? Absolutely not one fig!’ For in true Irish spirit, 700 Irish (and not so Irish) folks all working for the one aim, housing people and clearing the townships – can only lead to a sense of wonderment and fun.”
Walsh became Teirnan’s roommate and a member of Team USA. Now a 3 year veteran herself, Walsh recalled some of the wonderment and fun that has come to fruition. “Playing with the tots and kids that were running around barefoot on the building site, seeing the expression on people’s faces when they saw brand new houses rise where only townships once sat, and finally the day of the hand over ceremony, where we were honored to pass a set of house keys to the new owners and show them around their new home.”
Kathy McGee, also a 3 year veteran from Colorado shares Walsh’s appreciation for her fellow workers and their goal of bettering lives, and how her NMTT experience has shaped her perspective on life. “It is such an inspiration to meet people who have volunteered for the charity for 10 plus years. They are committed to improving the lives of others and they come back year after year to continue to help build.” She is also uplifted by the people living in the townships. “The people that live in shacks are so resilient. We do tours of the shacks and talk to the people who live there. Most have lived their entire lives in a shack and can only hope to move into a house with a lock on the front door and a working bathroom inside. In most townships the toilet is outside the house. It is an experience when the people you surround yourself with during the week make you realize what is really important in life.”
Coloradoan Trish Nathan, 2 year vet, said that she struggles for the right words to describe how her NMTT experiences have changed her life. “We all joke when we are in South Africa that ‘you just really can’t explain the experience.’ Honestly, that really sums it up! I have never considered myself a philanthropist, but when you are in a room with 600 volunteers who are AMAZING people, you really start to re-think what life is all about…This experience made me realize that you don’t need material things to make you happy, you just need to surround yourself with people you love and people who bring out the best qualities that you have inside you.”
Nathan also echoed the sentiments of McGee in regards to the residents of the townships, who give back to the volunteers in their own precious ways. “It really resonates when you see the smiles, laughter and love of these families who live in a shack; they clearly don’t have the luxuries that we have, but still manage to keep their chin up and enjoy life. They enjoy singing, dancing, and praying with each other – which makes you realize they may have the secret of a happy life figured out.”
Niall Mellon’s philosophy and the exceptional operational structure of NMTT fosters an environment that makes the workers feel safe and secure, and have some fun along the way. This has a lot to do with the success of the Charity and why volunteers want to return to help. “Everything we need to do our job is provided for.” Said Tiernan, “We work hard all day, but after work there are organized events to relax and get to know your team better.” Nathan adds her accolade to the founder and chief, “ Niall Mellon is an incredible man who has a vision of helping others that we should all admire. You may hear people say, it is hard to make a difference as one person, but Niall Mellon did.”
Certainly the adage ‘One person can make a difference’ can be applied to all the volunteers at NMTT. When Tiernan ‘picked up the ball’ and ran with it in Denver 5 years ago she definitely made a positive difference in many lives. But she deflects the individual praise and will tell you about the larger group effort. “The biggest item that I take away each year is a sense of pride that we are, in fact, changing families lives by providing them with housing and some of the most basic needs. On the final day of the Blitz, we meet the families that are moving into these homes and out of the horrible living conditions that we have seen in their shacks. That final day is one none of us will ever forget. That day is possible because of all of our family, friends, and coworkers supporting the cause. We are all very lucky that we work for companies that support volunteering and making the world a better place. My employer, Enterprise Holdings, LLC has supported the cause financially since I started many years ago and has let me host fundraisers with my employees along the way as well! I am always very grateful to receive their support and find they all want a full report of the trip upon my return which is pretty cool!”
“Besides all of that, I would have to say the biggest benefit to me as I continue to go back to Africa with this charity is that actual ‘Celtic Connection’ that it has given to me. I have made many friendships with my fellow Irish volunteers and the NMTT staff in Dublin that I know I will have for a lifetime. I wanted to thank the paper for that! Because of the article that was written in your paper over 5 years ago, I can truly say…In me, you have made a solid “Celtic Connection”.
(Kerri would love to see more volunteers from the States. If you would like to be a member of “Team America” or help with a donation, please go to: www.nmtownshiptrust.com)