Habitat for Humanity International invited Brooksville elementary teacher Kathleen Gates to visit India as part of the Jimmy Carter Work Project 2006 - and it turned into a learning experience for Gates and her students back home.
Traveling abroad and bringing back life lessons is something of a specialty for Gates. Her odyssey really began in 2004 when she visited China with the Fulbright program. Realizing that many of the children she teaches may never have an opportunity to see other parts of the world, she determined she would, as their reporter, seek opportunities to bring the world to them.
Over the summer, she discovered Habitat for Humanity's International Program and decided to apply.
"It was a short application online," Gates said. "I never thought I'd be accepted. I listed travel experience and organizational skills as a teacher, hoping that would qualify me."
It did. Practically before she could update her passport, Oct. 28 came and she was off on a grueling flight to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) all by herself. Later, she endured a three-hour bus ride into the mountains to a hill station called Lonavala.
She recalled: "I arrived at night. It was scary. Then, in small groups and alone, women of all ages and stations arrived. It was heartening that we had all made this grueling trip on our own to help build houses for women halfway across the world."
Past President Jimmy Carter is an organizer of this annual trip. Gates who saw him only from afar, was impressed with his dignity. She describes his wife, Rosalynn, as "a cutie."
The travelers worked alongside local volunteers and the women who would come to own the new homes. They built 100 houses.
Gates was assigned to the dining room, where she helped feed 2,000 volunteers - that comes to more than 10,000 meals.
Gates had an opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing and she also visited the Balgam Orphanage, which houses 100 children.
To her, India was a country of contrasts. A monument like the Taj Mahal is juxtaposed with an impoverished neighborhood. But Gates brought home stories filled with color and seasoned with tales of selflessness as people came together to make homes for those in need.
Gates used up all her personal leave time for the trip, but it was no vacation.
"Our secured compound looked nice, but was not what we were used to," she said. "Water and electricity weren't reliable. Local people bathed in streams, did laundry on rocks. Armed guards patrolled.
"But it was all worth it. It was nice to see women gutsy enough to go through all that to help others."