Retiree Has Made Volunteering a Lifelong Habit

A desire to help others through volunteering with Habitat for Humanity has proved to be rewarding beyond measure.

By Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board

My father taught me how to use workshop tools. Hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, and even a power drill were available for my experimentation. By the time I received a marionette puppet for my 10th or 11th birthday, I knew I had an “engineering brain.” Within two weeks of receiving the marionette, I figured out how to make three more.

Years later, when my favorite radio station announced its involvement with Habitat for Humanity and to help build a house for a family, I thought it would be a good way to meet new people, give back to those in need, and hone my construction skills for when I bought my own house.

That initial experience volunteering for Habitat for Humanity began a lifelong admiration for an organization that builds affordable homes for people who need a little help. Now, 30 years later, I continue to support this organization in many ways.

The idea for Habitat began on a community farm near Americus, Georgia, owned by Millard and Linda Fuller. Those in need of a home worked side by side with volunteers to build a home and were provided a no-interest loan from donated funds to lead to ownership of the home. This vision led to the development of Habitat for Humanity International in 1976. Many might know of the involvement of former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. The Carters have raised awareness of the organization in such a way that, according to the Habitat website, it now exists “in all 50 states in the U.S. and in more than 70 countries and has helped more than 46 million people achieve strength, stability, and independence through safe, decent, and affordable shelter.”

CREDIT: shank_ali

My volunteer journey

When I first began volunteering with Habitat in Summit County, Ohio, I was truly naive as to the mission, principles, and values of the organization. I initially thought Habitat gave away homes to people who needed them. It wasn’t until I was asked to join the board of directors in Summit County that I came to understand the scope of the organization’s mission.

Serving on the board provided me in-depth knowledge of the international organization and the ways different affiliates (typically county-based, nonprofit groups) function in their communities. This includes building new homes on donated or purchased property, rehabbing existing homes, repairing homes for those who cannot afford to have it done otherwise, and providing safety improvements. Financial donations provide the resources for these affiliates and the international organization to operate. Affiliates also operate Habitat ReStores — home improvement stores and donation centers that sell donated new and gently used furniture, home accessories, building materials, and appliances to the public at a fraction of the retail price. Proceeds support Habitat’s mission.

As a board member, I participated in home visits once a family applied to be a homeowner. A family selection committee reviews the applicant’s level of need, their willingness to partner with Habitat, and their ability to repay the no-interest loan. Once approved, families must contribute a number of volunteer hours and repay the loan in a reasonable amount of time. Habitat follows a nondiscriminatory process for family selection.

Habitat offers many ways to volunteer with a local affiliate. Although volunteers are needed primarily on the build sites, others can volunteer in a ReStore, attend a special event or fundraiser, or apply to join a board.

My personal favorite is helping at the build sites. Each home has a site supervisor who is typically a Habitat employee with the necessary training and experience to both complete the construction and instruct volunteers. Site supervisors have taught me so many things — how to correctly hammer so you don’t smash your thumb while holding the nail, how to cut and hang drywall sheets and to screw them in with the correct amount of force without putting a dent in the drywall, how to mud the drywall to cover the nail holes and seams, and how to hang siding, among other tasks.

The best part of building is getting to know the partner families who will someday move into the house. The excitement they bring to the site is contagious and the joy I often felt was overwhelming.

In 2019, our affiliate raised money and organized a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to help build homes in that community. I was looking forward to learning how they built homes in that region of the world, as every region builds using a different design and materials depending on climate and property conditions. Unfortunately, on March 1, 2020, two days before we were supposed to leave, Habitat for Humanity International canceled all international trips due to concerns regarding COVID-19. Just days later, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the pandemic. I hope we will try again in the near future.

I am very excited to be involved this year in our affiliate’s Women’s Build in Akron, Ohio. For only the second time, a home will be built solely by women, including a woman site supervisor. Using the skills I learned over the years, I look forward to helping other women gain confidence using hand and power tools. My local affiliate also has a group of “loyal volunteers,” primarily composed of retirees like me, many with an engineering background.

Volunteers who have amassed a certain number of hours are presented with a “buddy bucket” to carry tools, tool belt, and gloves to the job site. I was proud to receive my bucket in 2019, the year after I retired. I encourage those who desire to help others and who do not mind getting their hands dirty to consider volunteering with this wonderful organization locally, nationally, or internationally.

Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE (she/her), is an emerita associate professor of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. She is immediate past chair of the SWE editorial board, was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.