Marla, Ian, and Alyssa at Habitat for Humanity Portugal build site

An Uplifting Trip: Habitat for Humanity Portugal

By: Susan C. Andrews

“Te deixas sempre um pouco de ti e lleas also contigo”—You always leave a bit of you and always take something with you. Nine Penn State students from three different campuses—Schuylkill, University Park and Harrisburg—will always recall this Portuguese-inspired thought as shared with them by Florbela Ferreira.

Ferreira, volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Portugal and a history teacher, was an invaluable resource to the students throughout their stay. Bryan Valentine, director of student affairs and enrollment services at Penn State Schuylkill and trip organizer, said that “Florbela began as our host coordinator and, by the end of the trip, we called her our friend.”

The students were charged with helping to build the exterior walls for a home of three—a father, Rodrigo, his daughter, Angela, and her son, Gabriel. They helped to expand their small home in the city of Amarante in the northern Portuguese district of Porto that previously only had a small stove as a heating source for the two-bedroom unfinished block abode.

The reengineered house had no exterior walls for the kitchen and living room areas when they arrived. “We helped mix the concrete, lay the stone, knocked out the windows and prepared the foundation for the roof,” said Schuylkill junior Raquele Amato. The house is due to be finished this August.

Penn State students stand in front of their Habitat for Humanity build site in Portugal

A group of Penn Staters proudly pose in front of their Habitat for Humanity build site in Portugal.

Front row, left to right: Jaqueline Beltran, University Park; Raquele Amato, Penn State Schuylkill; Tesi Washington, Penn State Harrisburg; Rogerio, Habitat for Humanity Portugal construction coordinator; Gabriel, partner family - Angela’s son; and Marla Stoner, Penn State Schuylkill.

Second row, left to right: Madison Altmyer, University Park; John Sloane, University Park; Ian McGowan, Penn State Schuylkill; Alyssa Hatter, Penn State Schuylkill; Angela, partner family - Gabriel’s mother; Alex Bengel, University Park; Florbela Ferreira, Habitat for Humanity Portugal host coordinator; and Bryan M. Valentine, Penn State Schuylkill staff.

Credit: Penn State

The students took note of the laid back, stress-free work environment of Europeans. “The people work hard but take periodic breaks to enjoy their jobs,” said Schuylkill junior Ian McGowan. Impressed by how happy they were with very few material possessions, he said he personally felt fortunate to have access to so many life opportunities.

The ten-day trip was both service-oriented and an opportunity to learn the Portuguese culture through trips to historic cities, area universities and social events.

The group toured the University of Minho campus, visited the historic city of Guimãraes that sported a sign “Portugal was born here,” and were introduced by the Mayor of Amarante during the Sweets Festival.

The Schuylkill students all took away big life lessons from their trip abroad. Unanimously, the students said they appreciated the chance to give back to others. Adding that while they had the opportunity to change the life of a family, they also changed in the process.

While senior Alyssa Hatter said the opportunity was one to remember for a lifetime, McGowan said that he looks forward to future travel and, as a biologist in the making, could possibly work in other countries. Amato, who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy, recounted the many similarities between Italy and Portugal with food and language being the major differentiators.

Food and local cuisine is always a large part of international trips. Amato said that she found the portions were large, but very healthy. Although Ferreira took them to area Portuguese restaurants, they frequented a restaurant with a menu showcasing hamburgers from around the world.

Amato said she ordered a hamburger prepared French-style and served in a soup bowl. Yes, fellow foodies, she could not help but take a photo.

For Marla Stoner, a Schuylkill senior, the trip brought back welcomed memories of her grandparents. “All of our meals were home cooked and my grandparents would go out to the garden for vegetables and get eggs from the chickens,” she fondly reminisced. “It was rewarding in that I was able to remember things that I may have been forgetting.”

University Park student John Sloane said, “I had a great time in Portugal with all the other Habitaters; it was truly an experience that changed my life for the better.” In comparison to other trips, Sloane said that there was something different about this trip, including the mix of people and experiences that made it truly special.

Amato said that she has already befriended Ferreira on Facebook. She added that Ferreira had invited them all back for a future visit. And, Valentine has arranged for a June Zoom videoconference meeting to keep the group engaged with their fellow travelers and host.

Amato said that she was happy the entire week after they returned from Portugal. “The people there were uplifting and cheerful, and that made me feel happy as well. The family had few possessions, but they were very inspirational.”

Ferreira wrote in an email to Valentine, “If these nine students are representative of the type of students that Penn State University educates, then the University has many reasons to be proud. These students gave of themselves, both their time and energy to improve the lives of a family in Amarante, Portugal, and therefore contribute to the creation of a better world.”

It is fitting that when the students were asked what word they first learned in Portuguese they said, as if on cue, “Obrigado.” One word in Portuguese and two words in English: Thank you.