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Three things to remember when volunteering for Habitat for Humanity

By Hollie James on August 3, 2014

There’s a slew of volunteer opportunities in Ottawa – it’s possible to work with animals, children, and international aid, among others. If you can remember as far back as highschool, you might recall being forced to spend 40 whole entire precious teenage hours dedicating your time to one cause or another – an actual requirement for graduation.

But, now that we’re adults with (barely) enough time and money to spend a little less on ourselves and a little more on others, we can do this of our own accord. Certainly most of you have heard of the framework of Habitat for Humanity, a national non-profit organization working towards a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live. I’ve always imagined myself spending time building a house somewhere a terrible disaster has occurred, like New Orleans. But, scratch the “New” – Habitat for Humanity is building two semi detached houses a stone’s throw East, in our very own little suburban section of Ottawa known as Orleans. If you thought for a second that building a house is all burly men drilling and sawing and lifting heavy materials, it is – but they’re patient enough to let you help out too, and here’s what to expect.

1. Safety First

Just and average work day, Hollie with her mom.

Just and average work day, Hollie with her mom.

It’s comforting to know that Habitat for Humanity’s first priority is the safety of the volunteers. There is, of course, a brief safety talk before any hands-on work is begun – they want to ensure you stay hydrated and avoid a sunburn at all costs. They also repeatedly reiterate the fact that if you don’t feel comfortable doing something, you aren’t required to do it. It’s supposed to be a positive and memorable experience, so they provide a totally pressure free environment where you’re able to work within your own personal limits.

Of course, you’re completely decked out in hard hat and steel toe boots, which they provide for you if you don’t usually wear that kind of stuff.

2. The Houses Aren’t Simply Handouts

Habitat houses are sold to partner families at no profit and are financed with affordable, no-interest mortgages. Then, the homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments go into a revolving fund which is used to build more homes. The houses I had a small part in helping to build are on Nantes St. in Avalon – admittedly pretty high caliber, but you have to build with the neighborhood in mind, right? A huge misnomer is that the homeowners don’t have jobs and are just living off a handout from society. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth – in addition to mortgage payments, each homeowner invests hundreds of hours of their own labour, deemed “sweat equity”, into the building of their home and the homes of others.

3. Hard work won’t kill you, and you probably do sweat

Habitat3Spending my 8-4 with Habitat is probably the only time I’ve ever participated in hard, physical labour. The biggest blisters I’ve ever had on my hands before were from the bars in gymnastics, on my feet from the pirouettes in ballet.

It was really cool to be the one holding and using the power tools for once and not just watching my dad from a distance. When we got a break from hauling more than fifty 2x4s a couple hundred feet and then up to the second floor, there was coffee from Tim Horton’s and homemade baked goods (courtesy of our site liaison). We spent a while sitting around the picnic table and getting to know one another a little bit, and I was in awe of how all of these different people from different lives come together, giving of time and of themselves to each make a small difference in our community.

It’s often challenging to find an organization that permits you to volunteer for only a day, as opposed to making a longer term commitment. Seizing this opportunity as my introduction to the volunteering scene in Ottawa was the best I could have chosen, and surely propels my excitement to delve further, choosing among the vast options available to those who decide to lend a helping hand.

Hollie Davies lives in Wellington West with her boyfriend, wishes they owned Mog (the cutest outdoor cat on the block), is trying her hand here at immersion journalism, and is loving every minute of it in this gorgeous city called Ottawa. Catch up with her on twitter.