Look out Everest Build III, here she comes

Tuakana Wichman at the Mekong Big Builds in Vietnam last August.

BANGKOK (August 7, 2014) - One may wonder why Tuakana Wichman travels to far flung places when people half her age are content to potter around at home. “My father was a builder. Whatever my father does, I do,” said Wichman, 82, who is originally from the Cook Islands. She now lives in Mangere, south Auckland in New Zealand.

Each time that Wichman travels to a special build with Habitat for Humanity, her motivation is the same. She is spurred “to see the place, to see how the people are doing there and what I can do to help”. This is why she is heading to Nepal for the Everest Build III in November 2014.

The Friendship Build in Bangladesh in December 2012 was her first taste of a blitz build where international volunteers came together for a week to build houses alongside home partner families. The experience was a memorable one. Although Wichman had no fear of heights, she was asked to stay at ground level to pass around tools or water to volunteers working on brick walls. Looking up, she saw Jane Mead, family services coordinator with Habitat for Humanity Auckland, building a wall. Wichman said: “I want to be up there with Jane.” Her energy surprised some volunteers who got tired more easily.

“I like the heat but not the cold,” said Wichman who did not mind the Bangladeshi weather. What especially warmed her heart was to have the whole community turning up at the opening of the Friendship Build. Adults and children lined up to greet and welcome the international volunteers and there was even a band playing.

Likewise, she has poignant memories of the Mekong Big Builds in Vietnam in August 2013. She was struck by how people were making a living on and from the river, trading and growing rice. “Food was plentiful but the people were not getting enough money for their work. It would be better if they keep improving their lives and do not stop after they have reached a certain level.”

Now, Nepal is beckoning and Wichman has responded, partly because of the historical association of New Zealander Edmund Hillary, the first person to scale Mount Everest. There was, literally, a call as well because Conrad LaPointe, resource and development manager for Habitat for Humanity Auckland, had recruited her. Other than the thrill of seeing Mount Everest, Wichman is excited at going to Nepal because she “loves helping”.

Special builds, however, were not without their challenges. In Bangladesh, protests which took place just days before the Friendship Build nearly affected the event. Wichman recalled waking up half past 4am just to get to the build site early and staying on late to finish work for each day. In the end, the houses were completed in five days. “We did well,” she said.

Vietnam’s monsoon rains aside, the greater challenge for Wichman during the Mekong Big Builds was food. As she was not used to local food, custard apple was her staple diet. She also had to get used to unexpected attention from local media who wanted to interview her. Ahead of November’s Everest Build III in Nepal, Wichman’s main preparation was to get immunization shots. But her same approach to such special builds applies. “I always feel that we have to help and love one another…Do the extra to help others out there…”

Wichman, whose first name in Maori means “eldest”, is among the longest serving volunteers with the Habitat for Humanity Auckland. Since 1995, she has been involved in local volunteer builds in Mangere, the suburb where she lives.She works in the local ReStore and volunteers with a Christian radio company, Radio Rhema. She also runs a food bank from the garage of her house.

The ardent supporter has her old letterbox replaced with one painted in Habitat colors of blue and green. “Habitat does great work. There is none other like it.”

While Wichman, a great grandmother, has the support of her family, they are not quite ready to join her on Habitat builds. Her family would say, though, “Good on you, Gran.”

Wichman has her sights next set on a Habitat build in Sri Lanka. She is not stopping as long as she is still mobile. It is this combination of drive and zeal that drew a couple to approach her at a recent get-together. The man told her: “I read about you in the papers. If you can do it, we can do it.”

Not everyone is like Wichman. Be yourself and sign up for Everest Build. Find out more by contacting [email protected] or sign up for Everest Build III with the Habitat program in the country where you live.

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