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You Can't Write this Stuff

Coupled with the excitement of volunteering for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity is fear that I’ll screw up. Which I do. Quite often.  In any other job, I would have been “let go” long ago. But my supervisor Dave Madzo grins and bears my presence every Wednesday and I am, by fits and starts, learning valuable skills.

Each volunteer session is a new experience and I have, over my nearly two years of volunteering worked on every aspect of a new home build outside and in. I like the variety and the challenge but, like everyone, I always hope for an assignment that I’m comfortable doing, like framing — the macro side of the home-building operation. I’ve learned to set tresses, cut and install stairs and porches, and install siding, soffit and fascia. The more precise interior work continues to be a challenge for me.Tom collins

I spent a career in journalism, where it is essential to get what people are telling me right the first time because the second time usually involved an embarrassing correction. I prided myself on not only getting the story first but also right. Construction, however, is a different beast that lumbers rather than sprints. The language still is foreign to me and I find myself asking repetitive questions because my biggest fear is that Dave or his AmeriCorps volunteer Matt will have to stay late fixing something I got wrong earlier in the day.

Today it’s coping baseboard and cutting and installing closet shelving at a Habitat site along Jessamine Avenue in Saint Paul. After cutting the top shelves of the upstairs bedrooms, I asked Dave what was next. As always, he was patient with me, explaining that he needed the freshly painted six-inch strips of wood, narrowed on one end, distributed in each of the closets. As usual, I got ahead of myself and started to walk away before he was finished speaking. And, in my haste, I thought he asked me to distribute them on top of the closet shelving, which when you think for a second would make absolutely no sense.  But I didn’t think. As I was nailing the last one in a first-floor closet, Dave tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what I was doing. That’s when the nausea attacked.

“Not right?” I asked.  “No,” he replied with a broad grin. “They go below the shelving. And you’ll have to fill all 24 nail holes you made.”

Which I did, thinking that I had just added to Dave’s voluminous volunteer lore, under the heading, “You can’t write this stuff.”



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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