Alongside 20 of my Habitat Chicago coworkers, I recently volunteered on our construction site in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Despite freezing conditions, we spent 7 hours installing subflooring, cutting window boxes, and building the front steps of two homes in West Pullman. Habitat Chicago accepts volunteers from all professional backgrounds and experience levels, which meant I was right at home with my English degree and zero years of construction experience.


After being taught the ins and outs of the task I was assigned by my Crew Leader – leveling window edges in preparation for installation of window boxes – I realized I was missing a vital tool. I proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes looking through the mobile mini (the Habitat construction tool storage bunker) and asking every Crew Leader who would listen where I could possibly find a Drywall Asp.


After some strange looks, someone finally explained to me that what I was really looking for was a Drywall Rasp and not a poisonous snake, most commonly found in the Nile region. The Crew Leader lent me hers and I was on my way, rasping walls until my heart was content.


After a day full of similar missteps, I realized that our construction crew must see some pretty hilarious mix-ups from our volunteers on a daily basis, so I sat down with our team of AmeriCorps Crew Leaders to hear some of their favorites.


Before I jump in, let me say: volunteers are the backbone of our mission. We could not do this work without you and we deeply appreciate every single person who has contributed to building a better future for our homebuyers.


1. The right kind of footwear is always important, which is why we recommend steel-toed boots for our construction site, but we will settle for just about any close-toed shoes, including sneakers or running shoes. Not too long ago, a volunteer showed up wearing sandals. It happens! Luckily, one of our staff members was on site to loan her an extra pair of tennis shoes she had in her car. Phew! The day went on as planned after that and by the end of it, everyone was sweaty, exhausted, and glowing, which is probably why the volunteer left without realizing the shoes were just to borrow, not to keep. Wherever they are now, we hope that those sneakers have found a happy new home.


2. Sometimes volunteers follow directions a little too well. One of the keys to installing sheer wall is lots and lots of nails. About every 8 inches should do. Recently, a volunteer took the 8-inch rule to heart, measuring over and over again before laying the hammer down. As luck would have it, right above the floor of the bathroom, right where the final nail would go in that column, exactly 8 inches below the previous nail, was a copper pipe. A Crew Leader was quickly contacted to help with a “small leak.” Not to worry though – we got it fixed in no time.


3. Flush. Hammered. Butt. Get your mind out of the gutter! Not a day goes by where volunteers don’t giggle over some of the most common construction terminology. There seems to be an unspoken law that when using a stud finder, you must run it over to the person next to you and start making beeping sounds. Admittedly, our Crew Leaders laugh every time. 


4. Did you know a pneumatic nail gun will leave an indentation in the wood even when empty? Last fall a volunteer was making some incredible progress nailing plywood onto one of our houses when he was approached by a Crew Leader checking on his progress. Much to everyone’s dismay, the volunteer had run out of nails two sheets of plywood earlier and was doing very little to actually attach the plywood to the home. They say practice makes perfect and luckily for this volunteer, he had just gotten lots of practice. Time for round 2 – this time with nails.


5. Reading tape measures is a tricky business. With quarter, eighth, and sixteenth inches, reading all those little tick marks can be a huge pain, especially when you’re in a tight spot where every little bit matters. Factor in the actual cutting of the wood with the table saw and your original measurement that was 1/16th of an inch off is now 1/4th of an inch too short and completely unusable. One of our Crew Leaders confided in me that he recently overshot one of his measurements by a full foot and a half. Whether he misread the tape measure initially, wrote down his measurement incorrectly, or marked the wood erroneously, he’s still not sure, but those were shaping up to be some strange looking steps.


There is a steep learning curve to construction work but every day we are blown away by how impressive our volunteers are. You are unique, you are useful, and you are unstoppable. We wrote this article not because we wanted to poke fun at you (ok, well maybe we did a little), but to fill you with warmth in the heart of winter – we’re all human. We all make mistakes. What matters most is how well we walk through the fire. Thanks to you, so many families are able to experience the stability and self-reliance that a quality and affordable home brings. We hope to see you again soon.


- Stefan, Habitat Chicago Volunteer Coordinator


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