By: Joan Reinthaler
I remember the first day I volunteered with Habitat. It was in February and cold. With a small group of other volunteers I listened to a confident young woman talk to us about safety (don’t drop tools off ladders – watch where you’re going – ask if you’re not sure) and a little about Habitat itself. Armed with a hammer, tape, knife, pencil and a little bib-of-a-“tool belt”, I set off to follow my AmeriCorps crew leader, Joe, to the house where we were going to work.
Our job for the day was to install kitchen cabinets and a counter-top in one of the many houses being built at the “Northeast” site. I had recently retired from a long career as a high school teacher and to me, Joe looked about the same age as the kids I had been teaching. But he seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Not only that, he seemed willing to let me do some of it, explaining as we went along and patiently waiting as I fussed around trying to get a driver bit to engage with a screw head. I couldn’t believe that he was actually going to let me drive screws through a cabinet frame into the wall.
That day there were some challenges I didn’t feel confident enough to take on and a whole lot that I didn’t understand that Joe explained, (why do we need to find the “high spot” in the floor?) but I left feeling terrific. No one had assumed that I was too old, too female or too unskilled to do anything and I had learned a ton.
That was four years ago and after a few more random opportunities to volunteer, I asked if I could come regularly and have been there most Thursdays ever since. One of the up-sides of this is that I’ve watched four different cohorts of AmeriCorps “kids” (that’s how I think of them) arrive in August with few construction skills and uncertain leadership experience and, over the year, develop into superb, confident teachers (not to mention strong, smart and capable builders). They learn to size up the volunteer groups they lead every day – learn who to watch closely and who to let alone. They learn to anticipate what supplies each volunteer is going to need next and, when the inevitable screw-ups happen, they are invariably supportive and comforting, believing that great construction mantra – “there isn’t anything that can’t be fixed”. Above all, they are patient. Along with many willing and hard workers, they also deal with volunteers who complain, goof-off or fool around (I particularly remember the high school boy who spent the afternoon chasing his classmates around with a fully loaded paint roller) and they deal with all this with good grace and a sense of humor.
A lot of this AmeriCorps-crew evolution from neophyte to leader/teacher is due to the site supervisors who do a great job of teaching the crew, but a lot comes from within themselves and it is really nice to watch it happen.