Volunteering for Habitat for Humanity

Recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity! It's something I've always wanted to do, so when our university's faculty association put out a call to volunteer (on my birthday!) I had to sign up! The response was so good that they split up the university's volunteers: some went to the build site, and myself and another coworker from my department were with the group at the prefab shop. I was nervous about the day, but figured there was nothing better to do on my birthday than help better someone else's life so I was also really excited!

It was an early wake up call, as we all met at the prefab shop (which turns out is quite near my house). They are currently building the biggest Habitat community in Canada - a 64 unit site in Edmonton's deep south. It was interesting to learn more about the organization. Families (with at least 1 child) have to apply, must meet the income range, must pay their (interest free) mortgage and put in 500 hours of volunteer time as sweat equity. Very interesting.

Anyway, first up was an orientation on safety mostly, and then we picked up our safety gear. We had to bring work gloves, but were given steel toed boots, a hardhat, and safety glasses to wear for the day. We also had to wear ear protection and some people chose to wear dust masks. The university provided us with snazzy red tshirts and off we went!

We were split into three groups: cutting lumber, building outside walls, and building inside walls. I spent the morning building outside walls, under the guidance of helpful and informative staff and a team lead volunteer. I learned how to router out a hole in the 2x6s, the how to lay them out according to the specific wall plan, on huge tables (sometimes we worked from the ground, and sometimes we worked up on the tables. Then we nailed the boards together with an air gun. So this was not my absolute forte and I nailed my first wall to the table, but hey, beginner's initiation and I got better. Sort of. Ok so air nailing wasn't my favourite.

After the boards were all nailed together, we squared them, and then we cut backing boards to size and nailed and stapled them on top. Sounds easy, but it took all morning to do a couple small walls! So much to learn, such a learning curve! We did get a morning coffee break, and they provided us with a tasty pizza lunch!

After lunch, my team switched to building inside walls. This was easier as we only had to get the 2x4s from a pile (which was already routered), assemble them to the specs provided, and nail them together. Again my nemesis, the air nailer! Eventually we assembled enough walls (outside and inside) to load them in order onto a pile. The outside walls got logos spray painted on them. And then, it was time to go!

Trying not to lose a finger while nailing boards with some help from a university colleague. 
Photo taken by Lucio Gelmini.

I felt like we were working pretty slow, and my coworker said that probably it would go much faster if we weren't there, slowing the staff down, but one of the volunteers putting in her 500 hours said we accomplished a lot, much more than an average day with new volunteers, so I left feeling pretty ok with my effort.

And that's what happens in the prefab shop. They put together flooring or walls. These go to the build site and get put up to make the homes. Talking to a staff member, he said it never ends. The job site name changes, but the walls just keep coming. This experience gave me a new appreciation for the trades professions! The people we worked with were very good with us, so patient and helpful as they taught us how to do our job. It must be annoying for them, to have to constantly train up people to help them with their jobs. They did good work and knew their stuff, that's for sure!

I enjoyed working at the prefab shop, and all the comforts it provided: inside out of the elements, working washrooms, etc. I'd like to see what happens at a build site though, what I could make out from the photos taken was that they helped with landscaping, painting, joining etc. Talking to another colleague who was on the build site, she said some people were painting or washing windows but she had to dig trenches all day. I still can't believe they let newbies help build their houses!

All in all, it was a great experience! I learned some new skills, met some nice people and helped put together walls for someone's new house. Pretty decent way to spend my birthday! I'm not sure this is quite my volunteer niche - I just don't have the skills and abilities to do that kind of work so I won't make this a regular gig, but I would definitely volunteer for Habitat for Humanity again if work organized a day or if other people I know go out as a team. It was a good day, and I was happy to help such a good organization!