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What's It Like To Volunteer For...Habitat For Humanity

Posted By Melissa Haughton, Volunteer Guest Blogger, May-10-16
Updated: May-09-16


Photo courtesy of Habitat For Humanity GTA

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Having a safe and decent place to live is a basic human right. Yet there are 1.6 million Canadian families in need of safe, clean and affordable shelter but are forced to decide between heat and rent – a choice no family should ever have to make.

 Keith Perrin (left) and volunteer

Habitat for Humanity Greater Toronto Area is a non-profit organization that envisions a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live. Their work focuses on mobilizing volunteers and community partners to help hardworking, low income families break the cycle of poverty through affordable homeownership. Volunteers are the heart and soul of their work and each year 10,000 volunteers contribute over 100,000 hours to support the organization. One of their most well-known volunteer activities involves helping to build a home for a family.

Intrigued by what’s involved? Volunteer Toronto spoke with Keith Perrin, a volunteer with a background in sales and management, who rolled up his sleeves to help the cause and has helped many families along the way.


What is your current role at Habitat for Humanity GTA?

I’m the Volunteer Crew Leader


How long have you volunteered with this organization?

For more than three years.


How would you describe your current volunteer role?

Habitat for Humanity helps break the cycle of poverty for our partner families by providing a path to home ownership that would not otherwise be financially feasible.

We construct new build homes using volunteer labour, except where a licensed tradesperson is needed. Since volunteers perform primary framing, insulation, flooring and numerous other construction tasks, we are able to produce a quality home at a low construction cost.

Volunteers typically have no construction experience and must be taught the skills required to perform the task assigned for their day on the site, and be supervised throughout the day. This is a great learning experience, and opportunity to lend skills to a good cause in a hands-on fashion.

As a Volunteer Crew Leader, I teach construction skills, perform construction tasks and direct volunteers as they work on the home.


What is the time commitment involved?

For the past three years, I have averaged 500 hours per year. My frequency varies from as many as 3 to 4 days per week in the spring and fall, to a more staggered schedule in the summer and winter when vacation intervenes. As an organization, Habitat works with "what you can do, when you can do it" rather than a fixed commitment.

Many people only volunteer once, often as part of a corporate or community group. Some volunteers become regulars, and participate a few times per month. Regulars can graduate to the "Crew Program", in which they have expanded responsibility and assist less experienced volunteers. Some Crew Program members go on to become Crew Leaders if they show the desire, ability and commitment to more regular participation.


What does training consist of? How long does it last?

Training at Habitat occurs on the job, as it’s the only practical way to learn to build a house. I’ve been a Crew Leader for three years and a day never goes by that I don't still learn something from another volunteer.

Learning and teaching construction skills is a fundamental part of the Habitat model. Habitat people are extremely generous with their knowledge. Knowledge sharing is an integral part of the Habitat spirit.


What’s been surprising or challenging about your volunteering?

I was initially shocked at how little I knew about actual construction. I always thought of myself as a handy guy, but it turned out I knew zero about building a real house. Mercifully Habitat people are incredibly generous with their knowledge.

I was also surprised to realize how much teaching and leadership is involved, and how weak my skills were. I spent my career in management, but I quickly realized that everyone I managed already knew their jobs!

At Habitat every day brings a new cohort of volunteers who generally have a great spirit, but no knowledge. I can say that my teaching and leadership skills are better today than they were before I retired, but don't tell my old employer that!


What have you learned from your volunteering?

Obviously, I’ve learned how to build houses. But the greater, and somewhat surprising thing I’ve learned is how to teach and lead people.

As Crew Leaders we spend some time discussing the construction process, but we spend far more time discussing the best ways to teach volunteers with no experience how to perform a required task effectively.

It’s critical that we teach inexperienced volunteers new tasks early in the morning, so that they can be productive and self-sufficient by the midday coffee break if we are to have a successful day.


How have the skills/knowledge you’ve gained through your volunteering transferred into other areas of your life?

There’s no doubt I am a better builder since joining Habitat, but I have also become the "go to" guy amongst everyone I know for an answer to a technical home question!


What common misconceptions do people have about the volunteering that you do?

People think Habitat builds houses and gives them away, and this is not the case. Habitat’s motto is  "We give a hand up, not a hand out”.

Partner families (who will be living in the home) begin by passing a rigorous qualification process. They then have to give 500 hours of volunteer time to their home construction in lieu of a down payment. The house is sold to the partner family at its full market value, and Habitat provides a 100% first mortgage at zero interest with a repayment schedule geared to income.

The partner family must earn their way into an equity position in the property by paying down that mortgage. Were they to choose to sell the property after paying down only 10% of the mortgage, they would be entitled to only 10% of the equity in the home, including any appreciation in market value. This is a long term commitment for the partner family. When we say the partner family is in partnership with Habitat, we mean it!


What advice do you have to give to anyone looking to do this type of volunteering?

Give it a try! It's physically demanding, and although it may not feel like it at first, it's a big benefit. I am 67 years old and am in the best shape I've been in the last 25 years! It also provides a great mental workout - construction is essentially one long problem-solving exercise, and it has improved my math skills significantly.

More than anything: come with an open mind willing to learn, teach and meet new and interesting people.




Melissa Haughton is a recent graduate who currently works in marketing. She is passionate about writing, cats and helping out in the community. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.


Tags:  Construction volunteers  Habitat for Humanity  poverty reduction  Toronto  volunteer in construction  Volunteer in Toronto 

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