September 15, 2008


Looking back: My year building homes with Habitat for Humanity as a member of AmeriCorps

Though I have rarely (if at all) described it in this blog, for the last couple of years I've served in the AmeriCorps programs for Habitat Charlotte. First as a VISTA for the ReStore doing a lot of different and exciting things, and last year I joined the construction team as a Crew Leader to give a year of my life to the direct service of an organization based on love and compassion. And thats what allows Habitat to thrive – the compassion of many volunteers from different walks of life with a common purpose: everyone deserves a simple decent place to live.

Before the year began I was worried if I'd be able to measure up to the physical demands of construction. But I ended up surprising myself. For the most part, it was everything I expected: A lot of hard work; a whole lot of sweat, torrents of sweat in fact; a significant amount of blood usually from my shins or fingers, and almost a couple tears – more than once or twice a nail or the head of my hammer went into me instead of its intended destination. The purpose of what we were doing felt amazing. I don't think theres a better way to feel like you're contributing to something good than working with Habitat.

I've known Mike for a long time. He's one of my best friends. We were college roommates, and I was the best man in his wedding. Here's photos I took of that day: Part 1, Part 2. I couldn't have been happier to have him as my boss; but it really felt more like he was more a partner.

However, there was one aspect of my job I would never have anticipated, my work partner Allison. Our personalities are very different, but I honestly couldn't have ended up with a better partner. Allison also has a perfect memory and is one of the smartest people I've ever met. She has very high expectations of herself and others. And I was always amazed by the amount of energy she brought. And even though she could be harsh, she was always honest; some might say brutally honest at times. Which is something I grew to respect about her. We had some great times together and I have never laughed as much. There were many hilarious experiences we shared together. Such as the time when a fridge off Alex's truck onto the highway, and we were right behind him laughing as soon as we realized we were safe, and continued to laugh the whole time we helped him gather up the pieces. While Mike was technically our boss, most of the time Allison felt more like my boss, and I honestly am not sure what I would have done without her help. She kept me in line. We had some great times together. Here's a good example of our relationship even though it isn't work related: recently when going to the movies, I was attempting to purchase a ticket from an automated ticketing machine (Allison's suggestion) rather than wait in a long line to purchase them from the vendor. I looked at the machine baffled, not sure at all how to operate it. Allison looked at the machine for a mere instant, pushed the right configuration of buttons, and told me when to swipe my card and laughed at me for being confused. That interaction is basically sums up how we worked together. I have to give her credit, she challenged me more than probably anyone else ever has. And I think I'm all for the better because of it. When it is all said and done, Allison was the best possible partner for me.

Surprisingly I was the only member of our team that didn't suffer a major injury on the job. Mike sprained his ankle, and Allison fell off a ladder and broke her wrist right at the end of the year. Although at one point I did walk right off scaffolding as I was explaining how to install siding to a volunteer and fell horizontally about seven feet landing right on my neck. That hurt. I remember realizing what was happening and reaching out for anything and finding nothing in reach, then wham, the ground. As soon as I was able to talk (the wind was knocked out of me) I said “this is why I should have been wearing a hard hat.” But after about a week I was fine.

It was an amazing year, that has definitely changed me. We had a lot of fun as a team, going to movies and for ice crème on hot days. I'll really miss working with Mike and Allison.

(It was also during our year that Mike and Carrie started the path to parenthood. And it was just shortly thereafter that Carrie gave birth to their first son Colin.)

Mike Allison and I built ten houses for ten families. The diversity of the backgrounds of the homeowners I worked with still amazes me. I worked with homeowners-in-progress from refugee camps in Africa, Hurricane Katrina evacuees making a new home in Charlotte having watched their old home wash away, indigenous people from the highlands of Vietnam known as Montagnards (a term given to them by French colonial occupiers) still persecuted by their government for their support of Americans during the Vietnam War, and single women and mothers who never imagined they could afford their own home.

Below is a picture of the ten houses we built together:

I was always really proud of my mailboxes for some reason; perhaps it comes from having a father, brother, and grandfather who have all worked for or are still working in the Postal Service.

A note about Habitat: Some people have the misconception that Habitat is about giving away free houses, but that couldn't be further from reality. (That's almost as common as people thinking Jimmy Carter founded Habitat.) I've personally encountered these misconceptions several times in my own family. Future homeowners of Habitat houses have to meet several qualifications to ensure that their purchase of a Habitat home is fair and and that they have the ability to pay for their home. But Habitat is not just about building homes, its about building communities – with the volunteers who come to the work site and the future homeowners; and building-up communities with families who want to make a chance for the positive. What makes the cost of a Habitat home affordable besides having an interest-free mortgage is the hard work volunteers contribute to reduce labor expenses – leaving just the lot and materials as the primary expenses. Habitat is based on the idea that all people are entitled to a simple decent place to live. I've heard Habitat described very well as “a hand-up, not a hand-out.”

A note about AmeriCorps: It seems the program AmeriCorps is somewhat less as well known as is the Peace Corps. Its often suggested that the best way to explain AmeriCorps to someone is to describe it as the domestic version of the Peace Corps. However, AmeriCorps itself is divided into three groups: National and State, NCCC, and VISTA. As I mentioned before, my first year in AmeriCorps was in the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. VISTA itself is only one year less as old as the Peace Corps – it was started in 1964, in President Lyndon Johnston's administration – both the Peace Corps and VISTA were the brainchild of Sargent Shriver. Both are focused on eliminating poverty. During the Clinton Administration, AmeriCorps was created and VISTA was rolled into that program. The third branch of AmeriCorps, NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), was also created to resemble the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) created in the 30s by the Roosevelt Administration which functions in similar but more broad ways. All together, AmeriCorps does a lot of good for a considerably small cost.