Volunteer construction and remodeling is a great way to help needy people while learning valuable construction skills.
My wife and I spent several months outside New Orleans helping rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Every home in St. Bernard Parish, where we worked, was inundated with several feet of polluted floodwater after the levees broke.
After the water eventually subsided, every building needed to be stripped to the studs, and many were rebuilt with volunteer labor. I learned the whole interior construction process, including framing, hanging drywall, mudding and texturing walls, and installing cabinets.
Of course, books and websites can explain cabinet installation, but it was invaluable to learn from and get hands-on experience with the master carpenters and professional craftsmen who regularly came to the parish to work on recovery. I also met many wonderful, caring people, had plenty of fun and ended every day with a sense of pride and accomplishment (and exhaustion).
A group in your community is likely working on homes for low-income families, elderly residents or others. There are also opportunities to help rebuild areas that were devastated by natural disasters.
You can even make it a domestic or international vacation. Every year, hundreds of high school and college students spend the Thanksgiving holiday or spring break working on recovery by day and partying by night in New Orleans.
Here are a handful of reputable volunteer construction organizations:
- Habitat for Humanity is a global leader in volunteer construction, Habitat has built 300,000 homes for more than 1.5 million people around the world since launching in 1976. Unfortunately, it is a victim of its own success. There is sometimes a months-long waiting list for domestic projects, and some volunteers report too much downtime on overcrowded projects, particularly in disaster recovery areas. However, Habitat offers plenty of opportunities for short- and long-term volunteer projects in every region of the world, and does important disaster recovery work.
- St. Bernard Project has been called the most effective post-Katrina rebuilding group on the Gulf Coast. Four years after a couple with no construction experience launched the organization, it has rebuilt nearly 300 homes. The group also launched the first post-Katrina mental health center to help residents deal with the stress and other struggles of surviving the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
- Rebuilding Together mostly rebuilds and upgrades homes for veterans, disabled or aging people, and low-income families. A total of 2.5 million volunteers have worked in more than 100,000 homes. The group is currently focused on safety and accessibility upgrades, veterans' housing and rebuilding on the Gulf Coast.
The Appalachia Service Project is a Christian group that repairs homes for low-income families in Kentucky, West Virginia and other parts of rural Appalachia. The group focuses on making homes "warmer, safer and drier." Nearly half of all families in Appalachia have household incomes below $20,000 per year, and poverty is more than double the national average.