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Habitat volunteering is good for the soul

Nothing takes the sting out of the frustrating debasement that is today’s political dialogue than pounding a 16-penny nail into a floor tress of a Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity house. I only know to use the term “16-penny” after showing my Habitat supervisor two differently sized nails and asking him to pick the one he wanted.

I recently learned to “cope,” which isn’t what you might think. It’s the 32- and 45-degree angle cuts by a table saw in a piece of molding so that one end of it matches the contour of the adjacent piece. My only perfect cope came after eight failures one day.

I learned that snap lines must be held tight for an exact location of tresses and cabinets and walls and doors, and that I needed to fill up the red chalk in the snap before — not after — my comrades were elevated precariously on scaffolding to help run the line.

Tom Collins volunteering-729501-edited.jpgI now know that when my supervisor asks me to ready the “lam,” I’m in for a back-breaking 15-20 minutes of work, because the laminate requested forms the “header,” which holds the steps, and it is the heaviest piece of wood this 64-year-old volunteer has ever attempted to lift and maneuver through a crowded construction site.

I now know that if there is the slightest chip in the flooring we are installing, it goes into the trash.

I’ve built and installed decks in -30-degree-weather, where I was determined not to show weakness by rubbing my frozen fingers. I was and remain frightened by nail guns — particularly the kind that drives nails into concrete with an explosion by a .22-caliber blank bullet.

I’ve learned that I need a good hammer, not the short, wimpy kind I have at home. And if it takes more than 20 swings to imbed a single nail into the wood, my supervisor gets “worried” about me. My banker brother told me that the “pros” at Habitat really didn’t want me on site because I don’t know how to do anything. I found the opposite. The pros, knowing full well, that I could be a tremendous liability to them each and every day, have been extremely kind and proficient teachers of their craft. I also found that keeping my ego in check helps make the day go smoother.

I spent 40-plus years as a journalist and then as a communications executive, and, without question, working on a house for a needy family is much more fulfilling. My wife and I recently attended a Habitat ceremony in a home I helped build. The Somali family beamed as speeches were given, prayers evoked, and tours led through the rooms containing windows and doors I helped install, and beneath a textured ceiling that I mudded, across flooring that I laid, and around molding I coped. After the tour and just before we left, my wife asked one of the girls if she liked her bedroom. The teenager grabbed my wife’s hand and said, “Come see.”

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Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins recently retired after a career as a marketing and communications executive at the Saint Paul Port Authority, an industrial redevelopment agency, which, like Habitat for Humanity, works from the ground up to help people prosper in Saint Paul. Prior to employment at the Port, Tom was a print journalist for newspapers in Davenport, IA, Milwaukee, WI, and Saint Paul, MN, where he wrote about issues primarily focused on sustainable urban development. Tom is now writing fiction in the form of a play and a series of short stories.

Topics: Volunteer Spotlight

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