Obama Wants Americans to Serve Their Communities, So I Suited Up and Spent a Morning Hammering Down Shingles

Jan. 9, 2009

I ascend a ladder and step onto a roof covered with black paper still wet with morning dew. Kneeling, hammer in hand, and with a pouch full of roofing nails slung around my waist, I nail down shingles flush with the roof edge.

This morning, the Habitat for Humanity crew is split up into pairs, one person tacking on a shingle and the next following up to nail it off. My partner and I polish off a row, and I move on to find a new helper: 86-year-old Bill Weiss. When was the last time I worked side-by-side with a man 60 years my senior? Never, I realize.

It’s the kind of encounter that only community service can bring.

Habitat for Humanity is just one of many service organizations dedicated to helping out the less fortunate. And many of these organizations should be getting a boost in volunteer numbers very soon. Next week, in fact.

In 1994, Congress transformed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday — which falls next Monday — into a national day of community service. The incoming Obama Administration has created a nonprofit that will work to help aspiring volunteers organize service projects on a scale never before seen, and they’re launching it on the very eve of Obama’s inauguration.

If you’re wondering how you can dig right in and help, there are a number of websites that highlight different service needs and ways to get involved. USAService.org is a new website established by the Obama Administration that allows users to post their service events online or find existing ones in their neighborhood. It’s kind of like MySpace, but with fewer photos of last night’s raging kegger, and more information about community organizing.

Charityguide.org, meanwhile, is on a mission to inspire flexible service — they call the approach “volunteering on demand.” The site provides a list of service opportunities categorized into the time commitments they will entail. If you only have 15 minutes, you can donate your ponytail to Locks of Love or your clothes to Goodwill. If you have a few hours, you can volunteer at the Salvation Army or start a food drive. If you want to take a service vacation, you can volunteer for AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.

When I sat down to think about what I could contribute, I decided Habitat was the way to go. The nonprofit kicked off in Sarasota in 1986 and, since then, has built 185 new homes in Sarasota for people who otherwise could never afford them. I signed up to work in Jordan’s Crossing, a Habitat neighborhood on the corner of Fifth Street and Rhodes. Volunteers were just starting to roof the 79th and final home of the neighborhood. Coincidentally, the owner of the house I find myself crawling all over is the sister of the owner of the first house ever built in Jordan’s Crossing, back in 2002.

The house is dubbed “Cinderella’s Castle.” The name comes from the fundraising effort that began last year, when five women pledged to find 100 women to each donate $1,000 to reach the 100 grand it takes to sponsor a new Habitat home. These women are known as “fairy godmothers,” and they show up at the site often and work on the house when they can.

But Habitat isn’t just a charity. Potential homeowners have to earn it. The down payment is set at $1,600; buyers can organize a payment plan if they don’t have the money upfront. After the purchase, they take over the mortgage, with monthly payments comparable to nearby rentals. Owners have to put in 300-500 hours of sweat equity, which means people often help build the house that will shelter their very own families. If the owners are more apt to hammer their thumb than the nail, they can find a number of different ways to help out in the Habitat office or outlet store.

Volunteers can serve in these ways too. The office always needs help with paperwork; people can bring snacks to workers during breaks; and, besides donating money, you can donate furniture and other household and home improvement items. Kids under 16 have to be part of a group to get involved, but many church groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and school organizations volunteer to help paint and landscape the houses. From October to April, a group from Fun and Sun brings home-baked goodies on Thursdays for the volunteers. Lucky me. I happen to have signed up for a Thursday shift.

Grimy after a couple hours of labor, I trudge down from the roof for the 9:30 snack break. Before heading back to work, Manager of Volunteer Operations Janet Pederson points out one of the homeowners helping for the day and asks him to say a blessing. The man explains that he’s just arrived in the United States from Cuba; before he left, the Cuban government took all of his possessions, down to the forks and knives in his kitchen drawers. He thanks the 40-or-so assembled volunteers and tells them that, thanks to their kindness and hard work, he now has more than he ever could have imagined in Cuba. “This is my country now,” he says in broken English, “and I love this country because we are truly free people.”

The man has quite a story to tell. But, when you spend time on a Habitat project, you hear amazing tales like it every day, and that’s why I’ll be coming back. We would all do well to answer the Obama Administration’s call to service, not only next Monday, but for a lifetime.

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