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Expat Volunteering 101: How To Get Involved with Habitat for Humanity Argentina

Part 1 of a series about leading nonprofits across Buenos Aires

By | [email protected] | January 13, 2020 10:00am

habitat for humanityPhoto via Habitat for Humanity

So, what’s the deal with volunteering in Argentina?

Let’s start with the bad news: reports on poverty and economic inequality in Argentina are stark. According to data from the INDEC national statistics bureau, as of the end of 2018, Argentina’s poverty rate rose to 32.9 percent – a notable increase of six percentage points from the previous year. Altogether, across Argentina, 13.8 million people are living in poverty. What’s more: INDEC reports that the richest 10 percent of Argentines have more wealth than the poorest 60 percent.

So here’s the good news: this year was the record-breaker for the most volunteering in Argentina. According to research conducted by Voices! Research & Consultancy y WIN Internacional, in 2018, more than three in every ten Argentines participated in “community work.””For some basis of comparison, in 2016, around 25 percent of Americans took the time to volunteer.

Argentines are far from apathetic. Numerical statistics can be difficult to process, but the increase in poverty is palpable: “When there are problems, the Argentines react, there is a good solidarity muscle, and from our studies, we see a relationship between the voluntary rate and the economic situation,” said Juan Martín Trincado, a local who his Wednesday nights to preparing food for the homeless.

So, how can expats and foreign visitors flex that same solidarity muscle? It can be easy to dismiss any civic obligation that we may have.  Should we get involved?  Is their space for foreigners?  Yes, and yes.

In this series, The Bubble looks into nonprofits across Buenos Aires that are worth your time.

Habitat for Humanity Argentina


Habitat for Humanity is a global organization, working in approximately 70 countries around the world. All Habitat locations share the same general mission: working for “a world where every person has a decent place to live.”

However, each country’s office operates as an individual organization, with its own staffing, projects, financing and goals. Habitat Argentina focuses on building not just houses, but promoting strength, stability and self-reliance.

“We believe in empowerment,” emphasized Ailen Remelsky, who has been working for Habitat Argentina for nearly a year and a half.  “We don’t just build houses. We partner with families, and we offer opportunities for those in need of adequate housing to develop holistic solutions to their housing problems.”

What they do:

Habitat Argentina works on a wide array of projects that offer different solutions to housing inadequacies across Argentina. According to the organization, Argentina has a housing deficit of 4 million houses – 1.5 million homes that need to be built, and 2.5 million that need major repairs, because they are unsafe to inhabit.

Their main endeavor is Desarrollo de Barrios – developing houses in different neighborhoods. Habitat Argentina does not randomly build houses across Argentina; instead, they carefully pick locations, deciding to work with a community for five years (currently, they are working in Los Ceibos in La Matanza and El Saladero in Bahía Blanca.) Constructing houses goes hand in hand with hosting educational workshops, so families can self-manage their own construction processes.

Habitat Argentina also embraces projects that address the scope of housing problems. In 2008, they started the Estrategia Urbana campaign, aimed at assisting families living in precarious urban conditions. Across Argentina, many families are ‘squatters’ living in unsafe tenement houses, unable to meet the conditions required to sign contracts for adequate housing. Habitat Argentina promotes the restoration of urban spaces; one of its pilot projects also entailed the restoration of a building, which was rented for four years to a family.

This endeavor began as a pilot project: restoring Estela de Esperanza building in La Boca, Buenos Aires into eight sufficient apartments.  Not only was the project a success, but Habitat realized that it was an opportunity for advocacy surrounding improving access to decent rentals.

“With this project, we wanted to prove something: that formal renting is possible,” Remelsky said.

Habitat Argentina has partnered with other nonprofits – Asociación Civil para la Igualdad y la Justicia, and Centro de Estudios Legals y Sociales – so they can best showcase their work to the government. Finally, across Argentina Habitat responds to natural disasters in the neighborhoods where they work, as they occur, helping to rebuild houses and infrastructure.

But Habitat Argentina doesn’t want to just slap a bandage on housing problems: they want to generate systemic change. From organizing events to creating social media awareness campaigns to collaborating with nonprofits conducting research on housing, Habitat conceives creative solutions for expanding their reach beyond building houses.

How (and why) to get involved:

In 2018, Habitat Argentina had 877 volunteers, 100 of whom participated on a consistent basis. In addition, 17 volunteers travelled to Argentina to work for Habitat full-time, working upwards of 32 hours per week for over three months.

Volunteering is key to the organization’s continuity and success: “We need help, since we don’t receive that much support.” Receiving adequate funding is a constant struggle for Habitat and other nonprofits. Most of Habitat’s money comes from corporate donations; getting money from government is difficult, and not knowing where their money is going, many Argentines are skeptical of making individual monetary donations. “People are more willing to donate things like their food, or their time,” noted Remelsky. Time is money, and volunteers “help save money, so that we can invest in housing solutions.”

Whatever your strengths, personal preferences, or amount of time to offer may be, Habitat Argentina works with the volunteer to find a way to get involved. If you want to pick up a hammer and start building on-site: great. Construction brigades are typically carried out on Saturdays, in groups of 8-12, as full-day excursions to the current cites of the Desarrollo de Barrios project. You can email [email protected], or fill out the form on this page to attend one of these “scheduled build” events. This is a meaningful way to volunteer on an inconsistent basis.

Courtesy of Hábitat para la Humanidad Argentina FB page

But have no fear if construction isn’t your thing.

When Remelsky began volunteering for Habitat, she was struck by the mission and vision of the organization, but she didn’t see herself hammer-in-hand. “I realized that I could be helpful in so many different ways, where I could be creative,” she recalls. After six months of consistent volunteering, she enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to transition to working a full-time job with Habitat.

Ailen Remelsky

“People think that volunteering here means that you go to the site and build. But there are lots of people backstage,” stressed Remelsky.

Email to [email protected], or fill out the same form here, providing information on how much time you’re willing to give.

Then, you’ll have an informal interview with Habitat: Are you good at translating English to Spanish? Do you enjoy video editing or taking photos? Fond of social media?  Want to kickstart a research project or aid with data analysis? Consider yourself a solid event planner?  Fond of conducting interviews? Organized and good at administrative tasks?  

From there, you’ll get matched with a team: projects, administrative, communications, resource development, or management.

A quick note: if you’re a lawyer or architect, your skill sets could place you on a different team. Habitat relies on volunteer lawyers to support monitoring families in their contract and architects with solid construction knowledge to aid in building processes.

Each team offers a host of projects from which to choose. Depending on the amount of time you can offer, you can either contribute to a current project, or forge your own initiative.

Courtesy of Hábitat para la Humanidad Argentina FB page

Working with Habitat for the summer coming from the United States, Jacob Kayser and Cerinn Hwang are prime examples of the malleable and personal nature of volunteering at Habitat. Jacob, interested in public policy initiatives, began working with a group of five on the projects team, conducting research on informal renting in Argentina. After a few weeks of immersing himself, he’s currently working on his own to gather qualitative data, interviewing people in urban areas who do not have the property collateral to formally rent. Interested in using her creative and artistic side, Cerinn began working on the communications team. Now, she’s creating reports on ways for Habitat Argentina to improve its social media presence, and is collaborating with the resources development team for creating publicity for new campaigns.

As an expat coming into Argentina for the first time, Jacob acknowledged the steep learning curve, and the challenge of gaining a grasp on Argentina’s political climate. “Not being from here, you don’t know what the laws are, what nonprofits want versus what political parties want versus private organizations… I’m just beginning to learn that,” he said.  “But everyone here is so open and helpful, and I’m learning so much.”

Jacob Kayser

For expats like Jacob, there lies tremendous reciprocity in volunteering at Habitat: it’s an opportunity for him to learn, too, deepening his understanding of Argentina.

“If you volunteer here, you’re going to learn and grow a lot,” said Remelsky. “I trust this organization.  I know what I’m doing here is real- it works and it changes lives.  My work is translated into opportunities.”