I am a proud Habitat for Humanity homeowner, and before I begin to explain why I don’t believe that volunteers should “help the needy,” I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for all the volunteers, staff members, and partner families who have helped me build my home in my community.
When I left the United States Navy in 2006 and came home to my home town, my whole community was foreign to me. I struggled to match my skills with the needs of local employers, and I lived with my mother and daughter in a small rural community. When I got a job at a nonprofit agency helping community members solve their economic challenges, I made a very modest income that wasn’t quite enough to support a modest apartment and my child. A co-worker of mine suggested I apply for a Habitat for Humanity home.
I was looking for possible housing options, but I wasn’t necessarily needy.
I was perplexed by the civilian economy — an economy that was quickly spiraling into chaos. During the first summer of my newly found employment, gasoline prices had soared to over $4 per gallon, meaning each gallon of gasoline I purchased cost nearly half my hourly pay at the time. Milk prices echoed the price of gasoline. I had to put my daughter into a summer program so I could work, and while I was awarded a “scholarship” for summer-camp tuition which brought the weekly costs down to $45 a week, I had to drive 20 miles from my job to drop her off and 20 miles back to start work in the morning. With high gas prices, I was experiencing sticker-shock at the pump. Living independently at the time seemed nearly impossible, but I was going to figure it out. For me, choosing to apply for a Habitat for Humanity home was not a necessity. It was a welcomed relief–an incredibly helpful solution to a challenge that I was facing.
Through Habitat for Humanity, I met other hard-working individuals.
I would never describe the other partner families in the Habitat for Humanity program as “needy.” There were paralegals, preschool teachers, nurse’s aides, substitute teachers, food servers, older people, and people with disabilities in the program. The people I met were working on a goal that made sense for their family, and the volunteers and staff who worked with Habitat for Humanity were working with us-not for us, in helping to establish our stronghold in the community.
The word “needy” implies “other.”
I cannot help but cringe when I hear someone say that he or she has been “helping the needy” or “volunteering to help the poor.” Helping others you do not know is beyond admirable, but the phrasing of “the needy” or “the poor” falls on me as if one is helping some other kind of people-people who have some inherent flaw that prevents them from doing things on their own. Most of us can do it on our own. It’s just harder sometimes. Sometimes it takes longer to reach a goal. Volunteering to help someone shouldn’t raise a line of perception that separates the “us” from the “them.”
I never thought of myself as “a needy.” I thought of myself as heeding good advice. I thought of myself as someone who had found a network of people who could work with me to lessen the burden of some of my life-challenges, and I appreciated their contribution to my success in life.
Any human could encounter unexpected life-changes that open up challenges for which community support would greatly benefit them.
When I worked for that nonprofit agency, we were all still experiencing a major burn from the housing market crash. Much of the economy of my county depended on the housing market, so when the housing market crashed, it affected the county budget, the employer profile, and many other aspects of our local economy. The clients I saw trickling into the office defied a stereotypical notion of “needy.” I met people with master’s degrees and PhD’s. I met mortgage brokers, general contractors, real estate agents and even displaced public school teachers who were scrambling to find new employment. They had been living off of their savings for months before dipping their toes into the public assistance realm. They had been politically correct in their handling of finances, yet they were floating in a new kind of economy that changed everything they had known about their personal financial health. What I saw was an inherent link between all of us: the human social bond that makes every single one of us dependent on each other in some way or another.
Volunteering is working with others who live in the same world as you do.
When you work at a food bank or build a home for Habitat for Humanity, you’re working with people. Volunteering is a communal act, not just with the other volunteers, but it is a communal act with the people for whom your act directly benefits. You aren’t helping “the needy,” by volunteering, you’re helping your own society. Some of the people you work with as a volunteer may have personal challenges with which you will never fully understand, but that doesn’t mean there is no connection between your soul and theirs, or that they are in a different class of human beings than the helpers. When we work with members of our community to elevate them in society, we all benefit. That’s why it’s important to feel a human connection to the group of people for whom your volunteer work may directly benefit. You are one of them.