Tuesday, August 4, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Volunteer to Build a Home

Well, you probably won't build a home all by yourself, especially in three months, but you can be a key participant in building a house for a low-income family. The best-known program, of course, is Habitat for Humanity. I recently visited a Habitat site here in Madison where a number of homes are under construction and it's impossible not to be impressed with the dedication of the volunteers, the commitment and competence of the staff, and the positive impact on the homeowners.

I'm guessing that anyone reading this, at least in the U.S., is aware of Habitat for Humanity, so I won't spend time on more than a quick overview. Habitat, as it's commonly known, is a program that builds homes for low-income families unable to buy a homes on their own in the foreseeable future. Participants get a lot of professional and volunteer help building the homes along with financial counseling and a zero percent mortgage on a reduced principal. In return, they must contribute a certain number of labor hours on their own house and help build a neighbor's as well. If they sell the home some day, Habitat recovers the remainder of the principal then.

The building of a Habitat home is led by professionals - either paid or retired tradespeople volunteering their time. They in turn supervise what is largely an army of volunteers with skill levels from impressive to non-existent. It's up to the supervisors to find work that fits the volunteers who happen to be on hand that day while making genuine progress toward completing the house in a workmanlike manner -- and ensure the volunteers have a rewarding experience. As you can imagine, this is not always a simple task. It's been suggested more than once that Habitat supervisors are candidates for sainthood -- perhaps someday there'll be a St. Larry, protector of drywallers and roofers.

Last year, I volunteered with some fellow Rotarians to help on a Habitat house under construction. On arrival, we discovered that our first job was to remove the insulation that had been installed by another set of volunteers the previous day and put it back in the walls correctly. So our first couple of hours consisted of undoing poor work before we could begin making a positive contribution. This was not ideal, but at least we left the house in good shape for the drywall installers arriving the following week.

One advantage to doing a Habitat HarvilleQuarter is that it helps you develop skills you can apply to another HarvilleQuarter, such as creating your dream room. Habitat supervisors are very open to letting you select the kind of work you'd like to do. You could learn framing, drywall taping, painting, or installing doors, windows, moldings or cabinets. Certain work must be done by professionals to comply with building codes, but if you'd like to become an experienced door and window installer, for example, that most likely can be arranged. Even if you start with few skills, the fact that you are volunteering four hours a day, five days a week, will you make you a valued volunteer as you will require less and less supervision as the Quarter goes by.

Even if pounding nails and taping drywall is not appealing, there are many other volunteer opportunities. You can work in a Habitat ReStore, which collects donated building supplies for use on Habitat homes or for resale to the public to raise funds. You can provide lunches and snacks for Habitat work crews. You can help with office work, provide financial management training for Habitat families, or organize fundraisers. And beyond your local chapter, there are opportunities to volunteer your business and technical skills on a three-month project at the national Habitat headquarters in Americus, Georgia -- a great HarvilleQuarter.

I'll close by mentioning that Habitat is not the only housing assistance program for which you can volunteer. An example here in Madison is Operation Fresh Start, which uses home building and renovating as an opportunity to teach construction skills and sound work habits to young people who have had difficulty in traditional schools. The participants not on;y help build and refurbish homes but spend part of their days working to complete GEDs or HSEDs. Volunteers are welcome for both the classroom and construction phases of the program.

If you're physically able, working with either Habitat or local programs like Operation Fresh Start can be tremendously rewarding and would certainly meet the HarvilleQuarters criteria for learning new skills, meeting new people, taking some risk and growing as a person. I recommend them.

The photograph shows an Operation Fresh Start completed home in Madison, Wisconsin. Source: www.operationfreshstart.org.

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