Be glad that you aren’t sitting next to me – I’m tired, sweaty and smelly… and I feel great. I just got back from a Habitat for Humanity site where we worked on 5 different houses. All told, dozens of people who work with The Home Depot’s marketing, advertising and online teams essentially built a house – albeit not all in one piece. We did different work at different houses: at the first, laying the cement block foundation; second, building the floor system; third, framing a three-bedroom, one-bath home; fourth, siding an entire home and starting to paint it; and finally, nailing shingles on the roof and completing some framing inside. WHEW!
While these days of working in a community – beside colleagues, neighbors and in this case, the future owner of the homes we were building – are always meaningful, I think all of us were particularly inspired because we are in New Orleans as the fifth anniversary of Katrina approaches. Even as we sweated to bring these new homes out of the sandy ground, across the street decrepit and abandoned homes seemed to be staring at us through glassless windows. No one having stepped foot in them since the storm blew through over four and a half years ago.
The point I want to underscore though is not where we are, or what we did, but who was there. The Habitat staff was organized, professional and easy to work with, and the future homeowners were quietly excited, but perhaps a little overwhelmed. There were quite a few people who work for The Home Depot, but the vast majority of the volunteers are employed by the companies The Home Depot has hired to help its marketing and advertising efforts. These are men and women to whom “building a deck” doesn’t involve hammering nails, but instead means creating a powerpoint presentation. And not only did they travel and give their day to help someone they didn’t know, they even made a financial donation to do it.
Now, I’ve worked for large corporations for my entire adult life (How long is that? Long enough!), and I understand that sometimes it’s hard to see that real, breathing human beings with emotions and compassion make the decisions for these organizations. But I wish you could have seen the companies working through these people today. From early this morning, my goal for the day was to make sure these paying volunteers had a good experience and knew that we appreciated the time and money they were giving. Instead, I spent the day being thanked by others for giving them an opportunity to help this community where they don’t live and to help families they will probably never see again. The statements were gratifying: they told me that they would remember this day for a very long time, that it was the best corporate event they had ever attended and that when they get home they were going to take their families to do something in their community. In fact the only “complaint” I heard was that they didn’t get the chance to work hard enough.
As the media stories start to gear up this summer about the five years that have passed since Katrina struck and the progress, or lack of progress, that has been made, I know I’ll remember what I experienced today: a neighborhood with amazingly strong people trying to reclaim their homes and a gracious community allowing scores of strangers the opportunity to help others and to give of themselves.