On paper, Habitat for Humanity is a good fit for me: I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a DIYer, and pride myself on (at least) trying to take care of a lot of the maintenance demanded by my old house.
But I never realized how much I don’t know. And how much bigger the stakes are when it’s someone else’s home, not yours.
I first volunteered over the summer, during Habitat of the Northern Fox Valley’s Blitz Build project, where they gutted and rehabbed an entire house in just 20 days to celebrate their 20th anniversary. (Since the housing market currently has an abundance of vacant homes, Habitat is buying and rehabbing existing homes rather than building new – which I thoroughly support.)
Then serendipity intervened. As part of the federal government’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the city of Elgin received money to buy and rehab a dozen or so houses to reduce the glut of vacant homes. And they partnered with Habitat for some of the homes, one which was slated to be HHNFV’s very first WomenBuild Project.
It’s in my neighborhood.
I spent a couple wonderful autumn Saturdays doing demolition work, breaking up a cistern, pulling down drywall and cabinets and other projects. Demolition really is good for the soul.
But then school got in the way. It’s really hard to give up an entire Saturday – and wake up early – when facing hours of homework. So I hadn’t been out to the build site for a while until a January Saturday.
I assumed we would be working inside, as the temperature was in the low 20s, with a windchill barely a single digit. I knew the house isn’t yet insulated or really heated, for that matter, so I dressed warmly. When I arrived however, I discovered we would be outside all day, working on the new garage. Half the team was on the roof, shingling, while I and others framed the inside of the garage. I thought about running home to put on additional layers, but I was engrossed and didn’t want to walk away, so I stuck handwarmers in my gloves and boots and took periodic breaks inside. (I also worked “inside” the garage quite a bit.)
Habitat days are wonderful learning experiences, though they can be frustrating. I always realize how much I really don’t know as Tammy, our fantastic forewoman, gives instructions. Since I’m working on someone else’s house – a wonderful woman with two kids, a family – I don’t want to mess up. On my own house, sure, I want things done right, but the consequences only affect me.
The first day I volunteered, during the Blitz Build, was great because the house was being put back together. In the course of a day, I helped hang cabinets – after reading the diagrams and measuring multiple times – and prepped the bathroom for tile.
Working on the WomenBuild house has been different, though. There have been moments of frustration, when I thought I knew how to do something that I really didn’t, like when I realized I can’t hammer a nail in straight to save my life. Moments when I heard my dad’s voice, saying, “We’ll make a carpenter out of you yet,” as I cut 2x4s. Moments where I sucked it up and climbed a ladder. Moments of exhilaration as I discovered the magic of the palm nailer.
It’s humbling to realize how little I actually know, and how much there is to learn. And yet, this homeowner-to-be has entrusted this organization with rehabbing a house for her and her family. The neighborhood has entrusted Habitat with revitalizing a house, originally built in the 1860s, that has sat vacant for years, and bringing life back to that corner. The city has entrusted Habitat with the money to do so, and indirectly, the feds have sent taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to this corner.
I know I’ll go back again, because no matter how much I’m frustrated, I know the lessons will translate into my own home.
And sometimes, it’s good to step away from the schoolwork.