Humbled and Renewed: Habitat for Humanity’s Hardcore Volunteers Share Stories, Inspiration and The Why Behind Their Hard Work

by Amy Phariss

On any given day, during the muggy Carolina summers or the sunshine-filled fall days, teams of volunteers can be found throughout the Sandhills swinging hammers, rolling paint and installing cabinetry in houses they don’t own and will never live in. These volunteers work, however, with the zest and enthusiasm of first-time homeowners not for themselves but for the communities in which they live and serve. Known as Habitat Hardcore Volunteers, these men and women help build homes and serve the community through a myriad of positions with Habitat for Humanity of the Sandhills. From sorting through donated items at Habitat’s ReStore shop to volunteering with community outreach and fundraising campaigns, 

Hardcore Volunteers are committed to volunteering regularly, to showing up and digging in not just for the benefit of the people and community they serve but, it turns out, for their own sense of community, belonging and the feeling that comes after a day’s work and a job well done. 

Habitat Hardcore Volunteer Jim, who works regularly at construction sites for new builds, says, “You feel proud of what you’ve done. You give back and have fun and learn at the same time. It’s a win-win.”

Perhaps the idea of learning is one of the least expected and misunderstood aspects of volunteering later in life. When many of us think of volunteering our time, service or resources, we think of what we have to offer the community. We might consider skills we’ve developed in our professional lives or built through hobbies and life experience. We might consider helping people become financially solvent through education if we’ve worked in the finance industry in our professional lives or teach ESL if we have a teaching degree, for example. However, volunteering is also a wonderful opportunity for the volunteers themselves to learn new skills and develop new interests during a time of life when many of us aren’t necessarily expecting to be back in the student’s seat. Jim says, “You’ve got to step out of your comfort zone, but if you do, people can teach you new skills.” Jim, who moved to the Sandhills from Washington DC, barely knew the difference between a screwdriver and a hammer when he started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. As a new retiree, Jim was spending his days golfing, a dream he’d had for his retirement for years. After a few weeks, however, he realized he didn’t want to play golf every day, and he began considering volunteering as a way to add dimension to his retirement. Now, at 67, Jim has learned more than he ever thought possible about construction, carpentry, electrical work and more. As he says, “You learn what doesn’t work; then you learn what does work. I can show you what we’ve done. There is a lot of satisfaction in seeing an end product. There’s nothing like going to a dedication.” 

A dedication of a new home is one of the highlights for many Habitat volunteers, when they’re able to come together as a community and dedicate the home to its new family. The process takes 18 months to two years to complete for home owners. Habitat does not give away houses, which is a common misconception about Habitat’s mission. Habitat provides an affordable low interest mortgage for future homeowners.It’s a process of financial education and development as well as literal sweat equity, and home owners put in 300 hours of work on the home per person before completing the process. For volunteers, seeing the completion of a home and the dedication to a new family really brings the work full-circle. One child wrote Jim a letter expressing her thanks and what her new home meant for her on dedication day, which he still keeps as a memento and reminder of how important and valuable this work is. He says, “It’s a very humbling experience.”

Other misconceptions exist regarding volunteering, and Rosemary Weber, who serves as Habitat’s Volunteer Manager, says one of the largest obstacles in recruiting volunteers is good old-fashioned fear. People fear they don’t have the skills necessary to work on a home build. People fear the commitment of volunteering will be Draconian or inflexible. Finding a good match between skills, interests and time is another fear many would-be volunteers have, which keeps people from exploring richly rewarding volunteer opportunities. Weber, and the team of Hardcore Volunteers with whom we spoke, are quick to dispel such myths. As Jim notes above, not having construction skills didn’t stop him from working on building sites and from learning the skills necessary to give back. Several volunteers rotated through a few positions with Habitat, from office work to ReStore service, before finding a good fit. Cathy, who retired from the automobile industry and now volunteers in the ReStore, says Habitat works hard to fit volunteers with interests and skills. When describing her volunteer experience, she uses three words: fun, fantastic and social

The social aspect of volunteering is another topic that comes up time and again when speaking with Habitat’s Hardcore Volunteers. Jim, who has worked with and learned a great deal from fellow volunteer Frank (who is 82 years old) says, “You become friends. I would never have met Frank or been friends otherwise.” There is a definite vibe of friendship and community within the volunteer circle at Habitat. The volunteers talk about what they’ve learned from each other, how they’ve helped each other and how volunteering has expanded their social circle to include people they might have never met or known otherwise. Yet another volunteer dimension at Habitat, the Muffin Mamas are a great example of how Habitat’s volunteers combine kinship, work and support for each other as well as the community. Bringing homemade snacks for the building teams, the Muffin Mamas are a welcome sight on any build. From muffins to cinnamon rolls to coffee and other treats, the Muffin Mamas bring a bit of sweetness and respite from long hours on site, as teams take a break and enjoy a baked good or snack before picking up the hammer once again. The Muffin Mamas are a great example of combining the skills and interests of volunteers with the needs of an organization in a way that is outside-the-box yet still relevant and beneficial for everyone involved. 

Another fear of many would-be volunteers, quickly dispelled by not only staff but also fellow Habitat volunteers, is that someone is ‘too old’ to volunteer. Rosemary Weber quickly lists several volunteers who are not only well past 80 years old (several volunteers are still going strong into their 90s) but also hitting the nail on the head right alongside younger counterparts, often mentoring them along the way. Weber says, “The senior population has so much to offer….reliability, dedication, responsibility and a strong work ethic.” 

Add to this past life experiences (professional and otherwise), and the senior population is a solid, driving force in the volunteer community. At the end of the day, the volunteers say they’re renewed. 

As we embrace our second 50 years and all of the adventure and new life they breathe, this is perhaps the best feeling of all. 

For more information about volunteering with Habitat for Humanity of the Sandhills, contact Rosemary Weber at 910-295-1934 or via email at rweber@sandhillshabitat.org. 

For more information regarding Habitat for Humanity as a nationwide organization and to learn more about their mission and focus, visit www.habitat.org.