I Helped Build A Habitat For Humanity House, And It Was Nothing Like I Thought It Would Be

It was better.

"I tell women all the time... you don't need to know anything," Donna Ricca, my house-building guide at the Morris Habitat for Humanity, told me early in the day on Friday, May 12. 

Immediately, I heaved an internal, yet still slightly overdramatic, sigh of relief. Up until that moment, everything I knew about building a house I learned from the episode of Gilmore Girls where Rory builds a house for school credit. And what I really learned from that episode is that if you add feathers and sequins to a hammer, it's not necessarily great for construction purposes, but it does provide an instant conversation piece. 

Fortunately, I didn't need that.

"You need to have a heart," Donna explained. "I think if you come and you have a heart — and most of us do — that's all you need because we'll give you the rest."

While that's always true at Habitat for Humanity, it was particularly true that Friday, as I was lucky enough to be one of 17,000 women taking part in their National Women Build Week, sponsored by Lowe's. "This week's really about teaching skills, about letting you try things that you might not have tried before," she added, explaining that during a regular week at Habitat for Humanity, the majority of volunteers are retired men. Because they tend to be "more skilled" than the women volunteers, they'll usually "step forward" with the more difficult projects, making it harder for nervous newbies, like myself, to try something new.

When Donna first started regularly volunteering with Habitat for Humanity seven years ago, she thought many of the women volunteers didn't step forward as quickly as the men because they were afraid of getting hurt. What she soon learned, however, was that the women weren't scared of getting hurt, they were scared of messing up. "But here's the thing," she explained. "It's not a mistake if I can fix it."

Before Donna said that, I was one of those scared women — so scared, and preoccupied with worry, that I took a wrong turn (or two… okay, three) on my drive to the build site in Dover, New Jersey, arrived 20 minutes late, and, consequently, missed the volunteer orientation. 

Luckily, Habitat for Humanity isn't just a catchy name; they really do emphasize the "humanity" part so no one was upset at my lateness. And within five minutes of meeting Donna, I could already tell no one better embodied this emphasis on humanity.  If Mother Theresa and Yoda had a baby who happened to love volunteer woodworking, that baby would be Donna Ricca. Seriously, I challenge anyone reading this to think of the nicest person they know, multiple it by a thousand, and then add a wood chisel. That's Donna.

That's also Donna, chiseling away.
That's also Donna, chiseling away.

Donna first became involved with Habitat for Humanity about 20 years ago, when she was putting herself through college and grad school by painting houses. Once she entered the professional world of psychology, however, she was busy and didn't volunteer with them again for many years. "Then they were building in my town, so I went to help with that, and I kinda got sucked in and loved it and have been doing it ever since," she said. 

Still working full-time as a psychologist then, Donna would volunteer on Saturdays, then every vacation day, and then even played hooky a few times, all so she could volunteer as much as possible. "It became a passion," she added. "I took some time off to do this — to give back — so I come a lot right now... I kinda gave away everything I own, and I live pretty much like a monk so that I can volunteer..." In the most altruistic sense of the word, it's ironic. This woman has given up everything that traditionally "makes a home," in order to make a home for those who not only need, but deserve them, the most. 

Though she said her "family doesn't necessarily understand the choices [she's] made," Donna was so excited that one member of her family, her sister Lisa Metzger, was there to support her. As soon as Lisa walked into the house, Donna lit up with excitement to share something so important to her with someone so important to her. 

Donna (left) and her sister Lisa (right). 
Donna (left) and her sister Lisa (right). 

Soon after Lisa arrived, she and I outfitted ourselves with aprons, tape measures, pencils, X-acto knives, and hammers. With these accessories, we transformed from ordinary women into handy women.

Donna then introduced us to her mentor, John Stromberg, who would lead us in making bannisters for the house's stairs. We began by cutting a long piece of wood into three parts — one long and two short — at 45 degree angles on either side with a miter saw. After cutting the wood, Donna and John supervised me as I drilled a few holes for screws to later connect the shorter pieces on either end of the long piece. 

The four of us spent the morning surrounded by good vibes and sawdust, though we did run into a bit of a snafu with one side of our bannister. Technically speaking, I didn't make a "mistake" in Donna's estimation when I drilled the screws into the wood, but, well, it didn't go exactly as planned. "Like people, wood doesn't always cooperate," Donna joked. 

Basically, at one point in the drilling process, the wood splintered and, then, when we attempted to unscrew the screws, one wouldn't come out because it had broken in half inside the wood. John even attempted to assist me with a crowbar. 

This picture makes me look really intense and like I know what I'm doing, but I'm actually trying to fix a problem because I didn't. 
This picture makes me look really intense and like I know what I'm doing, but I'm actually trying to fix a problem because I didn't. 

Spoiler alert: It didn't really work. Luckily for the house's future owners (and me), Donna and John fixed it by cutting through the screw, recutting the wood, and even "doing it old school" with a wood chisel. "A lot of people just like to get it done," John told me. "I like to get it done right." 

Eventually, we (mainly John) got it done right, finally fitting the long and short parts of the bannister together with some wood glue and screws that did not break in half. And after everything was sawed and done, I was thankful for this obstacle because it taught me far more than getting it right the first time would have. By seeing what I wasn't capable of, I ironically learned what I was, and perhaps even what I could be — given a bit more time and a whole lot of help. 

More importantly, I learned what kind of person it takes to build a house.

You need generosity, determination, and, especially when dealing with the kind of person it takes to bungle a bannister on her first try, a ton of patience. We couldn't have built that bannister, or the rest of that house, without those admirable qualities that fueled our collective desire to try, try again. 

Later, as I was having difficulty, using a nail set to hammer nails below the wood of a baseboard, Donna offered to do it for me. Having seen her tenacity throughout the day, however, I declined. I wanted to do it on my own, prove to myself I could, no matter how long it took. And I did it. 

It wasn't perfect, and it wasn't pretty, but it was right — at least, right enough to become a permanent part of someone's home.

Believe it or not, this is the actual house I helped build that someone will actually live in someday. 
Believe it or not, this is the actual house I helped build that someone will actually live in someday. 

All day long, I was keenly aware that every little thing we did — including just covering the bannister's drill holes with wood plugs — would nonetheless be an important contribution to this single, giant, life-changing thing. Of course, when I say "life-changing," I primarily mean for the family who will live there, but, if I may, building this house and, most importantly, learning from the people inside it changed my life too. 

By the time we parted ways, I hoped a little of Donna's selflessness, patience, and dedication rubbed off on me. I would consider myself quite lucky if it did (and I like to think so). 

So, building a house? It was nothing like Rory Gilmore said it would be. 

It was so, so much better. 

Me, Donna, and John have some good, plain fun wood planing. 
Me, Donna, and John have some good, plain fun wood planing.