Way back HERE I talked about how I love to switch up my “Boggle” game.  (Rotating the game lets you see things in a completely different way.) There’s something so invigorating to me about shaking up life like that once in a while…creating ways to change up your view on the world now and then to create a whole new perspective.
This year, Dave and I decided Christmas would be a good time to shake it up.  We have had so many forever-cherished Christmas memories building up in the home where we live.  But this year we thought it may be a good time to do something different.  We are moving into a new house before too long.  We decided that’s the biggest Christmas gift we can get.  Now what could we give?  
So a few months ago we sat the kids down and had a little “family council.”  We laid out an idea for our kids to mull over:  How about we “give” our Christmas to someone who needs it more than we do?  How about we go build some homes for people who need them in Mexico?  (Through an awesome organization called FAMILIES HELPING FAMILIES.)
The answer was unanimous.  Everyone was on board.  They weren’t necessarily jumping for joy, but they all solemnly agreed it would be a good idea.  It didn’t even take any chiding, which made my heart want to explode.  So we began the preparations.  
On Christmas Eve morning we packed up some small Christmas gifts along with tools and building supplies and headed to try to give away a few pieces of our hearts for Christmas.  Christmas Eve and Christmas day were my favorite yet.  More about that soon, but the day after Christmas we headed to the building site to build four houses for people who really needed them.
So, here’s the step-by-step process of how almost 200 mostly untrained-in-how-in-the-world-to-build-a-house people can work their hearts out together to produce four new homes in a few days (I still can’t believe they let us do all this stuff and that it worked out like it did!):
Meet at a local church to get instructions.  Watch your son stay behind to help his little sister and let your heart melt a little bit.

When you get to the job site, form a fire line to get cinder blocks to the place on the foundation where you need them.

(The foundations were already poured and a few of the corner blocks were placed.)

Have a three-minute tutorial on how to set block:

Find a spot where you’re needed and start working.

Watch those walls rise up block by block.

Take note of how handsome your husband is in his working gear.

…and say a quiet prayer once again that he didn’t get hurt worse when he fell off that roof.

Introduce your daughter to a cute Mexican girl on the job site you think she might be able to work with:

(I LOVE how they’re each wearing one of Claire’s gloves.)

When your seven-year-old gets tired of helping “mud” with her own trowel (and gets in the way more than she’s helping), find her a nice little spot to color:

Every once in a while, take a break from your own wall you’re working on to go bask in watching your teenagers work.

Use a “U” shaped block for the fifth row.  Once that row is set, add rebar and tie it in with wires to help it “set.”

Every once in a while, look over your shoulder to watch your daughter sparkle with her new Mexican friend as they use their own sign language to communicate.

Once the rebar is set in place, pour “slurry” (watery cement) along the whole row.  Teenagers are awesome at getting bucket after bucket to pour down in all those crevices.

Be grateful a guy who knows what he’s doing keeps mixing cement throughout the whole day to help everyone out:

Twist some more rebar into place before all that extra cement goes in:

Think about how cool it it that you can work in little plugs and switch sockets into the block:

Make sure all that fifth row is smoothly covered with the slushy cement:

(That’s “our” wall right behind Dave below…we took pride in that thing.)

Watch the walls creep higher:

Gather the whole family to work on your own special wall for a little while after a lunch break:

Take the opportunity to go to visit one of the families who will get to live in one of the homes the foundation you are working with has constructed.

(and be so grateful your son has taken Spanish so he can communicate with them)

Realize how grateful that family will be to have something to shelter them better as you watch the mother’s eyes fill with tears of gratitude as she holds her baby and three toddlers close.

Watch your daughter become “king of the castle” on the pile for cement mixing.

…with a new friend and her art set your oldest daughter gave her for Christmas which you realize has been worth it’s weight in gold as it has kept her occupied all day long.

Bask in how incredibly dirty your children are…

…because with all that dirt comes the smile and sparkling eyes.  

The true sign of satisfaction of a day well spent thinking outside of yourself.

Gather whatever parts of the crew you worked with over the course of the day and take a picture.

Because after a day of working together, the ones you worked right next to become kindred spirits.

And let the teenagers know you’re pretty darn proud of the awesome efforts they put into that that wall they had to re-do three times…

Say goodbye to new friends for the day:

And head out to rest your weary body from a day well spent.

Then get ready to do it again the next day.

To be continued 🙂

****post edit note:
Part 2 of this project is HERE.
Part 3 is HERE.


  1. I LOVE this idea, Shawni and would love to do something like this with my own family. Can't think of a better Christmas. Merry Christmas to you and your good family!

  2. This makes me so happy to see! My daughter, along with my aunt, uncle, and cousins, were there helping as well and I'm thrilled to see a glimpse, via your photography, of the wonderful work that they're doing. What a remarkable experience for your entire family!

  3. WOW! Can't wait to see more details! Please post about how you found out about the opportunity, how you were able to sign your family up, etc. Thanks 😉

  4. OH MAN! This takes me back! Interestingly, this week, I've been working on an article about our trip to Bolivia all those years ago. Since you didn't get to go with us because Max was a baby, this is an extraordinary make-up call! it makes me realize that some things never change. Service to those who need it so desperately gives more to the servers than those they serve. This is just such an astonishing experience for kids. It changes them forever!

  5. My family and I have gone with "Families Helping Families" for Christmas several times. We love it! You might have met some of our friends who went down this year. so fun!

  6. I love this and want to do this with my family next year. Did you go with an organization? I've never found a group that will allow small children (10 yrs) go… please give us more details when you can. Thanks!

  7. Wow, what an amazing experience and excellent way to 'give back'. So fantastic that you could do this as a family too!
    I'm in Australia and wondered if you know of any other international organisations where families can volunteer their services at Christmas time and/or throughout the year? Thanks

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