On Volunteers

Putting up the first wall on the new houseThe average U.S. Habitat for Humanity home costs about $60,000 to build. It is then sold, with no down payment (other than hours paid in sweat equity) and basically at cost, to a family who would typically not be able to afford a home otherwise. The only way this can be done is through free – volunteer – labor.

Here’s a very rough estimate on costs. Let’s say there were at least 40 volunteers on our work site in Hattiesburg. Most of us worked 8 hours per day. If we were getting paid an unskilled labor rate of $6.25, Habitat for Humanity would have had to shell out $2000 for that week (assuming no benefits or overtime). If a house takes 5 weeks to build, unskilled labor alone would add $10,000 to the cost of the house. This doesn’t include skilled labor such as electricians, plumbers, etc (which Habitat often does pay for).

Of course, in the case of volunteer labor, sometimes you get what you pay for. While Dave and I aren’t professional contractors by any means, the amount of building we’ve done over the past 15 years (both through Habitat and in the theatre) made us some of the more experienced members of the team this week. Let’s take a look at some of our teammates!


Becca and the nail gunBy far the best volunteer labor are students. Actually, this is a qualified statement: the students who come willingly are the best volunteers. They have youthful energy and are willing to do just about any job, from menial to quite skilled, as long as you show them how to do it. Our favorite people to work with this week included the students from University of Maryland Law School and Earlham College. It was particularly fun empowering the young women to use power tools.

Sorority girls moving lumberThe flip side of the student coin are those who are obligated to be there for some reason. On our first work day were three students from Southern Miss. Two of them were making up hours mandated by their Interior Design teacher, and their attitudes were less than positive. (“Everyone hates our teacher,” one of them told me, “because she makes us do this.”) The third was the boyfriend of one of the girls, and he was up on a patio roof happily nailing down shingles. He told J.R. he’d be happy to come back by himself sometime. The next day, a group of 50 sorority girls showed up late afternoon to do their monthly hour of community service (as Greek organizations are expected to do). These girls were all dolled up with manicures, flip flops, and ironed-down hairdos. J.R. made me supervise them as they moved lumber from one area to another. Sad to say that they truly needed the supervision. (“No, this one belongs on that pile!”)

Youth Challenge kids - on a break or working?Then there were the high school students. They worked hard because they had an adult watching their every move, but they were about as unskilled as you can get. There were two groups working on the site there in Hattiesburg. One was the Youth Challenge group, which is basically a military academy. It was easy to tell who they were because they were miserable looking young men wearing fatigues digging ditches. This was the only group that had scheduled smoke breaks. Another group of high schoolers was those trying to stay out of the Youth Challenge program. Dave’s favorite was a tall, muscled kid called “Billy Dale” (not making this up). At one point, Dave accidentally dropped a long two-by-four while he was on top of a ladder, and it landed on Billy Dale’s arm. Dave felt really badly, because that must have hurt a LOT. Billy Dale just said, “Aw, I play football, I taken harder hits than that.” Later, Billy Dale went to Sue to have her cut a piece of lumber for someone else, telling her, “This is supposed to be 28 and somethin’.” She looked at him and then said, “Well, ‘somethin’ could be a lot of things, so why don’t you go back and find out what ‘somethin’ is?”

Working on the patioEvaluating church folk as volunteers is tough. It was hard for us to tell if some of the folks in the Baptist group knew why they were there. Some of them worked very hard and were pleasant to interact with. Others seemed very unhappy the entire time, gravitating to the edge of the scene, focused on their Bluetooth or Blackberry or digital camera. When they spent Friday morning doing a prayer service around the site, their presence made a lot more sense – but it may have been a better use of everyone’s time if they had gone around the Gulf Coast blessing construction sites, rather than hanging around our work site working hard at avoiding work.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with church teams doing very hard work (here I’ll give a shout-out to my Cordova Neighborhood teammates with whom I dug baňo pits in Mexicali). It all goes back to the Theology of the Hammer (see “On Religion“) and people knowing why they’re there in the first place.

Ultimately, we’re most biased toward people like ourselves – random people unattached to groups who made it a point to spend a chunk of time devoted to service to others. A round of applause goes to our friends from Seattle: Sue, Ellen, and Will. We couldn’t have made it through the week without you, your amazing attitudes, and your hard work.

On Saturday, when Dave and I were about to head out, we made a point to say goodbye to our Site Manager, Mike. He said, “You guys can come back any time you want.” I told him that meant a lot, because I know he doesn’t say that to all the volunteers. He kinda smiled and told us that to some volunteers, he says, “Thanks for coming – have a safe trip back.”

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