It was my first time volunteering to help build a house. I know nothing about construction, but I was warmly welcomed and put to work. In this case, the project was nearing completion – after only 8 “volunteer weeks” the house was ready for indoor finishing work. I spent two and a half days wielding a paint brush, coating countless feet of trim and interior doors with coat after coat of semi-gloss paint. It was not exactly challenging, but it was work that needed to be done and it was a task that felt safe and comfortable for me. On my final afternoon, however, that changed. Without doubting my capabilities, the site supervisor assigned me and a young partner to trim the doorways. In no time, we were measuring, cutting, mitering corners and hefting powerful nail guns powered by compressed air. What looked so simple when he demonstrated for us took a lot more thinking on our parts, but we mastered it! And the result was not bad. I may have felt timid at first, but the resulting sense of accomplishment was the highlight of my tenure on that project.
But I gained a whole lot more than that out of the experience. I learned that Habitat for Humanity is as much about the humanity as the habitat. Like most people, I did not really know how the organization operated. It’s not just building affordable houses, it’s setting up new homeowners to succeed. Habitat families must put in 300-500 hours of sweat equity, helping build their own home and other Habitat houses. They must meet specific income requirements, and qualify for their mortgage. They attend classes on managing their finances and home maintenance. It put the homes in a whole new perspective.
But there was another side of the humanity. Working alongside other volunteers, I met people from a variety of backgrounds. We were encouraged to talk, take breaks and eat lunch together. Each day I partnered with different individuals, learning more about them through the course of our work day and I was inspired by their stories. I worked alongside a young woman who was just diagnosed with MS. Despite dealing with the side effects of her new medications and the lurking uncertainty over her future health, she worked tirelessly and eagerly. A young architecture student was putting in 8 weeks at Habitat this summer, gaining practical knowledge for her future profession. Retired folks were there for the entire week, some lending expertise from their former careers. One of them put in over 60 days on Habitat houses last year. One man took a day of vacation from his job to work with us. A Hmong brother and sister, college students, chipped in for a day. We were a motley crew, but made to feel appreciated.
I wonder what I’ll learn next time?