In my early 20s, working at a health care consulting firm, I was blown away by the idea of Skills-Based Volunteering. It was simple in concept – put a volunteer’s talents and experiences to highest and best use. I took it to heart. Gone were the days of volunteering in soup kitchens and doing walk-a-thons. For the last decade and a half, my volunteer work has centered around the same kind of work I am paid to do. I’ve coached community leaders who are focused on making art and education accessible for children. I’ve teamed up with colleagues to create a strategic marketing plan for an outdoor retreat center. (I won’t soon forget when they thanked us by letting us play on the ropes course!) Most recently, I’ve hosted a series of board facilitations for a nonprofit whose mission is near and dear to my heart – inspiring girls to be joyful, healthy and confident. That’s what I’ve known of volunteer work as an adult. Until yesterday.
Yesterday, I spent the day bringing a house back to life with the amazing team at Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland.
Turns out there is power in knowing nothing. Lots of it. Our team worked on everything from bundling crazy amounts of brush and yard waste to patching up holes in the floor, to preparing the exterior for siding. I was on brush duty in the morning which felt very comfortable. I wasn’t afraid of finding animals underneath the pile and I’m comfortable with a pair of loppers (even if I didn’t know that’s what they are called). Sure I was sore the next day – this work requires a different set of muscles than the deep listening and keyboard punching I’m usually exercising during the day – but I felt good, ease-filled.
Then came the afternoon. And the framing of a second-story wall. There I was with another woman pounding three inch nails into 15 foot 2x4s – all next to a giant hole in the second story. We leveled out the existing first floor frame and then built and erected the studs. (Yeah, I now understand what they mean by demoing everything down to the studs.) I was jig sawing and drilling, providing stability and taking measurements – all while having a great time.
Our fearless leader in this task was Benjamin, the construction lead. He easily works 60 hours a week bringing houses back to life and stewarding volunteers like me to help him do it. He grew up around construction moving his way up, as he described it, from water carrier to nailer and driller to eventually being allowed to take on big tasks. He moves through his work with an innate knowing and genuine kindness. He’s perfect for this work. As he guided us through raising this wall, we asked him, “Is it actually easier to have a group of untrained helpers like us versus doing the work yourself?” He was quick to respond with an enthusiastic, “yes!” He went on, “there are so many tasks, I just can’t do by myself. I can’t hold up dry wall and nail it in. I can’t level out the board while securing it in place.” It was a good reminder for me. Yes, skills-based volunteering is powerful. AND sometimes you just need an extra pair of hands to get the job done.
I’m so grateful to have had the experience of being uncomfortably inexperienced in my work. For having a patient teacher and being part of diverse team of inspiring and committed volunteers. It’s a day I won’t soon forget, and I know this experience has created a shift in how I think about volunteering. The house we worked on is about a mile from my house – the very same zip code as my own home. I’m excited to go back and continue to see this modern-day barn raising come into fruition.