My wife and I have recently started working with Habitat for Humanity on a new development of single-family, two-story homes. Right now, a couple of the homes have their crawl spaces and garages framed, one house has its first story framed, three or four homes have their foundations poured, and quite a few homes have yet to be started.
Although we are only working with Habitat one day each week, those days are incredibly intense. The first time we volunteered, we spent the entire day laying insulation. Cutting it to size, laying it between floor joists, stapling it down. By no means of the imagination could this be considered a complicated, complex or even particularly difficult job. Except it was. Very hard. The insulation is heavy. It’s made of fiberglass that gets in your pores and your eyes and itches and hurts. The insulation is a foot thick, so cutting it took muscles. Laying it required us to walk and scramble and crouch on the web of floor joists, which were narrow and suspended six to eight feet above the ground. Falling through would have been quite bad. It was hot, and we were even hotter because of our hard hats, face masks, safety goggles and gloves. We made a lot of mistakes and had to redo sections. The staplers were heavy and solely human-powered, and by the end of the day my hands and forearms were killing me. It took the two of us plus one other worker nearly a full day to insulate only one house.
By the time we left that day, I felt like I’d been hit by something big and ironclad. Everything hurt. I had prickly insulation everywhere. My head was fuzzy from the heat. We trudged back to the car, went home, drank a beer, and were in bed by 7:30 p.m. Still light outside, and we’d already had a full day of work and were asleep.
Before going back the following week, my wife and I decided that if we were asked to do insulation again, I was to gently steer the site manager in another direction. So, we showed up bright and perky the following Thursday and signed in. The site manager saw us right away and beamed. Just beamed. “You’re back!” he called out. With joy in his voice. Seriously, joy? For us? “That’s great! You guys are great! We have another house that needs insulating. Since you’re so good at it now …”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we didn’t have the guts to go another round with the prickly pink hellbeast. So we went the additional round. And this time it was all different. We organized, we collaborated, we managed. We scoped the project and made a plan for laying the insulation that would minimize cutting and lessen our scrambling on the floor joists. We packed our pockets with extra staples. We got rid of the safety goggles. We trained two new volunteers. We didn’t wait for instruction from the site manager or ask any questions. We were effing insulation experts. We had the project done in half the time of the first house, and the quality was far better.
The site manager was correct. It did make sense to have us do the second house. The first house was a flounder fest. The second house was where Habitat started to realize a benefit from using volunteer, unskilled, weak-ass labor.
We were just sitting down to congratulate ourselves on a job well done when the site manager and his beaming face showed up again. “You’re done! Amazing! Just in time, I have a new job for you!” This is a guy who speaks in exclamation points. Which is probably a good thing when he has to deal with people like me who start thinking about beer as soon as one piddly task is done. His new job? Using a hammer, crow bar, six-foot lever, and various other implements (including a jackhammer) to pull the wooden frame off of a newly poured foundation. The reason we needed to use all of those tools? Because in many places the wooden frame was cemented into place. With concrete. Holy mackerel. Laying insulation was nothing compared to prying 12-foot wooden beams out of hardened concrete.
The wood/concrete separation effort nearly did us in. It was tough. Hot, backbreaking work. It was also, at some points, literally beyond our physical ability. There were moments when my wife would be leaning on her crowbar, I’d wedge mine in as well, we’d both push with all of our strength and … nothing. At those moments we had no option but to cry uncle and ask for help.
That evening, we were again in bed before darkness fell. We awoke the next day stiff and sore and walking funny. You’d think that after all of this perhaps we’d give Habitat a pass and find a volunteer opportunity more suitable for our desk jockey physiques. You’d think so, but each week we find ourselves more and more excited to get up early and head back to the project. We’re helping these homes rise up from the dirt. We’re working with young, energetic, idealistic Habitat employees, a bunch of older, still energetic and still idealistic retirees who’ve been volunteering for years with Habitat, and with the very excited people who will actually get to live in the new homes.* We’re learning new skills and contributing our time and effort to a great cause. The work is difficult, yes. Exhausting. But we’ve found that to be the best part. The exhaustion is how we know we’ve given everything we can, that our day was filled to the absolute brim. It feels amazing.
* Habitat requires families who receive Habitat homes to assist in the construction effort. Our first day we worked alongside and had lunch with a woman who showed in every interaction her excitement about her new home and her gratitude for the opportunity that Habitat is providing to her family. It is very neat to see the physical results of our construction efforts – but seeing how Habitat was changing her life was rewarding on a totally different level.