Volunteering to help build houses can build, tear down, and rebuild our kids' characters.
“When I tell my friends I’m going to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity, they ask me if I’m getting paid and I say no,” my son told me. Then he added quietly, they taunt him with, “Wow, you’re gay, you should stay!” With that kind of peer pressure it’s no wonder that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest decline in volunteer rates is among teenagers.
But kids aren’t entirely to blame. It’s not like a teenager is going to beg parents, “Oh please, Mom, let me take a week off from the beach so I can hammer nails in 95°F heat in Appalachia!”
It’s up to the parents to say, “You’re going to volunteer, and I’m going with you.” At least that’s the attitude of the parents who headed up one New Jersey youth group that recently went to Millheim, Pennsylvania to build a house for a single mother of three.
Families Work Together
I was among the three parents and a dozen teenagers who traveled almost five hours to the Stone Valley Recreation area. We stayed in rustic cabins on a beautiful mountain lake with gorgeous hiking trails. In the morning, we had to get the kids up early to get them fed and ready to go for hard day of work in Millheim. This turned out to be a feat in itself since they spent the evenings in front of a bonfire refusing to go to bed until their eyes couldn’t stay open.
Our destination was 45 minutes away, so when we got out of our cars and one of the kids realized he forgot his sneakers, there was no going back… and there was no working at the site.
Habitat has very strict rules for workers. Sneakers, preferably work boots, are a must. Parents must sign waiver forms allowing their children to work and there are rules governing what tasks kids can do at certain ages. For instance, the 14-year-olds are only allowed to do general clean up, while kids who are 16-years and older are allowed to handle drills and hammer nails. There are no nail guns on site, much to the dismay of one teen who had some construction experience and found it quite tedious (and unconventional) to frame out a wall with just a hammer and nails.
On this particular day, the kids had to frame out a wall on the bottom floor of a two-story home. The supervisor on site was well versed in working with kids who had never seen a hammer before, much less used one. The sound of the kids hitting nails, wood, then a finger, screaming an obscenity and hitting wood instead of nail again, was quite hilarious.
This was a church youth group and obscenities didn’t go without notice from one leader who reminded the kids of their infraction by saying Bing every time they uttered a “bad” word.
Once the frame was finished, it was very exciting to watch all of the kids get behind the wall to raise it, only to find the wood had bowed. While the frame would easily fit on either side, it was not moving into the middle. Enter the sledge hammer.
While some of the kid held the frame, others took turns banging it into place. Once in place, the frame needed to move 3 inches to the right to line up with the outer wall. Once again, the kids took turns banging the wall into place. Two hours later, the wall was still inches away from where it was supposed to be. To make matters worse, the wood they were banging had split and part of the frame would have to be rebuilt the next day.
Talk about sweat equity! The temperature had reached 95°F and the humidity took our breath away, so the group was done for the day.
Families Grow Together
Back at camp, the kids shared their thoughts on the experience. One told me he learned that, “A lot of things you build in life can be easily destroyed.” As it turns out, this teen had worked on the part of the frame that was literally sledge-hammered to a pulp. But the kids displayed their blisters like badges of honor and agreed the day had been well worth the trouble.
One of the youth group leaders acknowledged that sometimes you have to force kids to do things they don’t want to do, and sometimes parents have to be good examples and go along for the ride. He believes what the kids got out of this experience will be repaid 100 times over their lifetimes. When they have their own children they are going to encourage them to volunteer — whether they like it or not — and the spirit of volunteerism will continue to replicate itself down the road.
This experience was organized by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Centre County (HFHGCC) at 1155 Zion Road, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 16823 (814/353-2390). Enter your zip code in the main site of Habitat for Humanity to find a project near to your family. Our comfortable accommodations were in cabins at Penn State University’s Stone Valley Recreation Center (814/863-1164).
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