I just returned from the absolute best Habitat build – ever. Without exaggeration, I’ve probably visited over 100 houses built by Habitat for Humanity and been to dozens of build events. I’ve never left one feeling disappointed; never felt like my time wasn’t very well spent; could always see the tangible impact of the volunteers’ efforts. But the one I participated in last week truly stands apart.
I meant to write this last week on the plane ride home, but I needed some time and perspective to consider why this event was different. Almost all volunteer events are special and rewarding; you always leave feeling better about human beings than when you arrived. For me, when the work involves a house, it is even more fulfilling because someone has trusted you to come into their home, their most personal place, and allowed you to put part of yourself there, whether by building it, improving it or repairing it. (And, I must admit, that I often wonder whether I would want someone like me working on my own home!) Last week’s event was unusual in a number of ways, not the least of which was the spectacular location in Colorado – in September, no less. Additionally, it was an amazingly large event, the largest I’ve participated in, with over 600 volunteers and thanks to Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, exceptionally well organized.
Because there were so many of us, we worked on a significant number of houses and did a wide variety of work. Our volunteers from The Home Depot and the companies that provide our products swarmed on over a dozen yards and homes, building foundations, framing walls, constructing garages and fences, painting sheds and planting trees and bushes. In the course of one day, we invested 4,000 hours of work and visibly transformed the neighborhood. Eventually there will be 68 families living in this community, and they will benefit from what we did for years to come.
In thinking about it, though, I think that the reason this day will stick with me and stand out from all the other days I spend volunteering is that there were so many families that had either already moved in or were watching their homes coming out of the ground who watched us, visited us and told us their stories during the day. There were the two houses standing side by side where the families of a brother and sister who are refugees from violence in Africa will celebrate New Years 2011 together. The sister spent the day in the garage of her neighbor across the street serving fresh food and spring rolls to sweating volunteers. The neighbor has already moved in and is Vietnamese. She cares for her parents and works in a nail salon. She and her mother wanted to share their culture with these volunteers who had come as strangers and were leaving as friends. Her father was in a wheelchair, but he came to thank everyone. They kindly and proudly opened their home so we could see how wonderful it was. A young couple watched their foundation being built and made sure that the volunteers had water as the sun got higher, and hotter, in the sky. Their children, a 6 year old daughter and 4 year old son, came before school to see the site and wave to us as we got started. That evening, the walls of their bedrooms were framed, and they could finally see what their own rooms would look like – where their beds would go.
Because let’s be honest. At bottom, what really gets most of us is the kids. Everyone needs a home where they can be safe, healthy and protected. A place that they know they’ll be able to stay because they can afford to pay for it and a place where they want to be. Children, in particular, need a place to feel secure and stable. The kids I met last week knew that these were going to be places where they would live for a long time with their family. One little boy had several health issues, but you wouldn’t know it when he charged out to see us. He had been listening to the hammering all morning and desperately wanted to see what was happening. Isaac had already moved into a home here and because of that, his older brother had been reunited with him and his mother. For him, that was the most important thing – here his family was together. His mother understood that she was saving about $300 a month compared to rent she paid for their old one-bedroom apartment and that the new home was well-insulated, well-ventilated and built with materials that don’t have toxic chemicals. She understood that this home would be safe and healthy for Isaac, who just had surgery and breathes through a tracheal tube. She knew that the home was built to be handicap accessible if Isaac has to give up his leg braces for a wheelchair one day.
There were more families there, each of whom had a story that I’ll remember. For me, those families and their stories transformed that day from one in which I helped build houses for future residents into one during which I was given the gift of helping families create their homes. They spent a great deal of time thanking us for our time and effort, but I know that we owe them much more.