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Habitat for Humanity's Theme Park  Re-Creates Third-World Poverty  for American Eyes - 2003-07-17

The small town of Americus, Georgia, is the world headquarters of Habitat for Humanity. Dedicated to eliminating sub-standard housing, this Christian-based non-profit organization has built more than 125,000 homes for the poor in 87 countries. Habitat volunteers work with the new homeowners to erect the structure together. This summer, the organization opened its own theme park in Americus called the Global Village and Discovery Center. It's a place where visitors can get a close-up look at Habitat's international work. But the Center is no lighthearted theme park. As Susanna Capelouto discovered, it is meant to shock visitors into action.

The first thing you see when you enter Habitat for Humanity's new 2.5 hectare theme park is a slum, just like the ones found in many developing countries. Dick Kuegerman, the park's executive director, says the poor, run-down neighborhood was re-created especially for American eyes.

"I think we all think that we know about poverty and poverty housing because we see it on TV, we read about it in magazines, but by and large very few of us actually have walked down the street of a poverty settlement or gone in a house where someone living on less than a dollar a day would actually live," he explains.

Although no one actually lives in the poverty village, the 30 or so small huts - cobbled together with tin, scrap lumber and bamboo - give a feel of disorder and despair. Inside the shacks, torn mattresses, broken chairs and other discarded odds and ends are a reminder of the contrast between the first and third worlds. In one structure, an old TV is proudly displayed, even through there is no electricity. There's also a light bulb on a string. These images mirror experiences Habitat for Humanity employees like Randall Day had, as they worked on projects around the world.

"That's one of the first thing I saw going into a poverty home in Malawi, was a light bulb on a string. And I thought, there is no electricity for miles, what's this? Then I realized it was on a string and my friend told me 'I want to have electricity one day, but this is the closest I can get,'" recalls Mr. Day.

Signs throughout the village challenge the visitor. One points out that over a billion people live in houses just like the ones here. Another one reads "Imagine if your family lived here."

Like its homes throughout the world, Habitat for Humanity's poverty village was built with volunteer labor. Some structures are still going up. A church youth group from South Carolina is busy working on a home that might be found in India. Thirteen-year-old Judith Myers says this experience has opened her eyes to the dramatic gap between rich and poor.

"It's amazing how they live, how they survive with these houses, 'cause you know, at home we have air conditioning, we have beds, we have TV's, we have radios, but here they don't even have sinks, they go into the river and they wash their dishes or they bathe. It's amazing," said Ms. Myers.

The theme park does not re-create the smells, the insects or the mass of people that are part of every real slum. But for tourists like Barbara and Pat Conley from Arizona, the poverty village is vivid enough.

Barbara Conley: "I don't think we realize how much we really have. Gosh, I don't really know what to say 'cause I kind of feel overwhelmed."

Pat Conley: "I'm a Vietnam vet and I have seen poverty like this before, but still it's shocking and it makes you very thankful that you live in America and also spur some kind of… you want to do something to help in some kind of way."

This is exactly the kind of reaction Habitat for Humanity hopes to get from visitors, because beyond the small poverty village is a display of what can be done to help, examples of the modest homes Habitat has been building all over the world.

While the organization hopes its new attraction will help raise money to continue building those homes, Habitat's executive director David Williams is hoping it will raise awareness as well.

"And I would hope that as people go through this, that initially they'll be shocked, maybe they'll even be angered, but that ultimately they'd be inspired, that they would be inspired that there are solutions and that they can be involved in that if they choose to be," he said.

Habitat for Humanity plans to expand its Global Village Theme Park to include more examples of the types of homes it builds for the poor around the world. There will be clay houses from Africa, reinforced concrete homes like those in Central America, and wooden structures from Asia. There are also plans for an international marketplace that will sell products from the 87 countries where Habitat is trying to make a difference.