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It Takes a Village

We gather around 8:30 a.m. each morning, holding our coffee cups and waiting our turn at a piece of tape, where we scribble our first names and attach it to our shirts. For most, this is a meaningless exercise because they are members of a tribe — whether it is a church group, or employees of local businesses and government agencies, or a prison crew from Lino Lakes. I’m a tribe of one. I showed up one day at a Habitat site in Saint Paul, met Habitat Supervisor Dave Madzo and, as he put it recently, “just wouldn’t go away.” I write my name out anyway to help answer queries about who I am and what I am doing there. “I help Dave on Wednesdays, “ I always say. “I’m a volunteer just like you.”

Dave listens as the volunteer coordinator for the church, company or agency explains how the day will proceed and how important it is to stay hydrated. Dave then welcomes the group, introduces his AmeriCorps helper, Matt, and outliers, like me, and then launches into a speech he’s probably given good-naturedly tens of thousands of times. I’ve been on site at four of his houses in the past year and he never fails to mention that:

“This is a construction site so be careful and go slow.”

 “We want you to have fun but again, this is a construction site…”

 “This is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship. If you have any questions about that, just ask me. I don’t know where you live or what your homes look like, but I want you to treat this house as if it were mine.”

Tom helping on the home


And with that Dave apportions job tasks to groups of volunteers for the morning and hints at the afternoon activities. After we pair- or group-up, and Dave answers a flurry of anxious questions, volunteers settle into their routines and become experts for that day in measuring and cutting siding and drywall, cutting and installing stairs to the basement and the second floor, installing windows and doors, mudding the ceilings, installing flooring, painting the walls and then repainting them and then touching up one last time —all with an eye toward building a home for a Minnesota family. I keep that in mind as I hammer, saw and brush my way through this skeleton of a structure. I often picture families roaming through their new home the way my family does without a second thought to all of the hard work that goes into building it. I like the smell of fresh paint and I think the new owners will too.  At times, amid all the clutter of a construction site, the picture is fuzzy but it gradually clears into vibrant sharp lines.


In a previous life, I planned groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings for real estate developments throughout Saint Paul. I wrote the news releases announcing these events as well as the words dignitaries spoke during them. I took mandatory hardhat-and-golden-shovel photos for groundbreakings, and the big-scissor-cutting-the-ribbon pictures for the ceremonial grand openings. But I always found them sterile, lacking the blood and sweat and passion that are very much a part of each Habitat project.


As we wind up one day’s worth of work and prepare for yet another group of volunteers the next, we remove our nametags from our shirts and place them on a portion of exposed foam insulation or wood, symbolic of the best of the old African adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Before it is sided over, dozens of volunteer nametags will be memorialized forever in each and every Habitat house.


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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