When we moved to the Bay Area in 2010, I was finishing a post grad and did not intend to find a job as we only planned to stay for six months. I had always wanted to work on a building site so when I read about volunteering for Habitat for Humanity on craigslist, I jumped at the chance. I started out in East Palo Alto on the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, helping to get houses back into shape for new families to move in. This could involve painting, cleaning, digging up the garden or whatever else was planned for that day.
Later I volunteered at an actual construction site (Mission Street, which was completed in 2013) and I enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated. For over a year I was a regular volunteer at the 36-apartment housing development in Daly City. First for two days a week and when I started working again after it emerged that we were staying in California, I continued with one day.
It was a fantastic experience and I feel glad and privileged that I had this opportunity to help build houses for people as well as alongside these same people as they were putting in what Habitat calls their ‘sweat equity’. As part of the requirements for homeownership through Habitat, families are required to put five hundred hours of ‘sweat’ into building their own homes. The great thing about it is that the future tenants are working (sweating) together so when they finally move in they all know their neighbours. It’s so simple yet so clever.
When I first started I didn’t really have any hands-on experience, however the staff and the AmeriCorps crew were always helpful and never looked annoyed when I made them repeat things a third time.
A small challenge for me was the fact that I know what various tools are named in Dutch but I never had the need to know this in English so getting asked to go to the tool room to pick up a snips, cats paw or sawzall was an adventure and sometimes required multiple trips. But I learned (to a large extent) and even felt brave enough to get my own tool belt at some point.
The work on site was varied and no two days would be the same. On Tuesdays when there were only regular volunteers on site, there was training provided. Although in the beginning my brain would only absorb about twenty percent of the information, as I got more familiar with two by fours, king studs and cripples this increased. On the other days of the week there were large groups of day volunteers (often corporate groups), which was fun as it was a chance to meet a lot of different people.
Waterproofing, roofing, siding, dry walling, you name it, I did it and I learned some pretty cool tricks in the process.
I was sad to say goodbye to the site, the people and their fantastic spirit and unfortunately did not get to witness the new tenants moving into their homes, but it gave me a lot of inspiration and food for thought and it has certainly made me appreciate all I have.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer at Habitat, check out their website Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. They have a lot of cool opportunities for people who are willing to get their hands dirty and it is very easy to sign up through their Volunteer Hub. I promise it will be fun!