I volunteered once and a while with Habitat for Humanity for years. Since last summer, I’ve been a regular volunteer 2-4 days a week. It’s changed my life.
Since my retirement in 2011, I’ve been doing occasional volunteer projects, at church (web site, choir, Congregation Council, contribution accounting), helping seniors set up their computers, and with Civitan (and through them the Salvation Army, Special Olympics and the March of Dimes). I felt the need to do something more instead of sitting home, blogging and playing video games. As I get older, my perspective changes from personally getting along to giving back. Habitat game me a sense of mission. I feel like I have found my place in society (or the Kingdom of God if you will). It’s very gratifying to meet the new Habitat homeowners and hear their stories. It’s great to give these folks a leg up because we know that Habitat is part of many families’ success stories.1
My doctor told me that people who give back have better health outcomes than those who send text messages and hang out on Facebook all day. Indeed, I am feeling much better these past months both physically and emotionally. I’ve lost five pounds and I am in better condition to enjoy recreational activities than I have been in a while. They say that the key to a successful exercise program is finding something you enjoy doing. I enjoy building houses. I spent my professional career working on a computer—it’s nice to do something totally different.
I’ve made some super friends. Habitat volunteers are some of the neatest people you will come across because they all share the desire to give back. They are interesting, kind and compassionate people, and I’m privileged to be in their company. I can say the same thing for the Habitat staff. I also get to meet the future homeowners as they put in their required hours on their own house and others. Their stories of trying to make a better life for themselves and their families are inspiring.
Did I mention that I got some neat tools? I didn’t buy all that many tools (and a volunteer does have to buy any), but I know how to use them.2 When the deck stairs on my house started rotting, I knew from the experience of building a deck with Habitat just what I would need and how to do it. I can’t build a house from scratch, but I’m pretty good with vinyl siding and dozens of other construction tasks. My local Habitat affiliate provides formal training for volunteers, and I learn something every time I go out on a job site. Having these skills builds self confidence.
The final advantage is the one I feel the least comfortable about. In this part of the country, there a convention of society that when someone mentions that they are a military veteran, a non-veteran in the conversation will say “thank you for your service.” I get similar remarks when I say that I volunteer for Habitat. I don’t do it for the appreciation of others, but I get it anyway. Volunteer work for Habitat seems to meet with universal approval. I suppose there is some self-validation in those comments, but I don’t think I need it. Doing good is its own reward.
I don’t mean to say that I was miserable before and now I am happy. It’s not that stark a change, but all sort of good things have come out of my volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.
1There are many misconceptions about Habitat, foremost is that it gives houses to people. Habitat homeowners put sweat equity into their homes and their neighbors’ homes in addition to a mortgage. In Greenville County, the mortgage runs around $100,000 on a house that appraises for $125,000. The homeowner adds 200 hours of sweat equity to that.
2Habitat generally provides all the tools a volunteer needs. You might want to bring your own pair of gloves. In my tool belt, I carry:
- Utility knife & spare blades
- Pencil sharpener
- Bullet level
- Pocket square (Swanson speed square)
- Measuring tape (25 ft.)
- Vinyl shears
- Claw bar (nail puller)
- Nail set
- Gutter nail driver (pea shooter)
- Siding removal tool
I bought my own gloves and hard hat, but Habitat gave me a hard hat after I reached 100 volunteer hours last year (I had 342 total).