After I retired recently, my days were easily filled with routine household chores and projects. I wasn't bored, but with more time to spend at home, I was acutely aware that my career as a business executive had enabled me to live comfortably on Long Island, a place where others struggle to afford basic housing.
So four months in, I signed on as a volunteer with the Suffolk chapter of Habitat for Humanity. I enlisted at the Habitat website as a "walk-on" because I was not affiliated with any of the churches or civic groups that regularly send groups to worksites. I filled in contact information, picked a date and hit the "Finish" button.
On the scheduled day in March, I put on jeans and work boots, and packed a sandwich, the first of many differences from my white-collar workdays.
The Habitat worksite on my first day was a "rehab," a blighted house in Bellport. We planned to gut the structure -- a three-bedroom, single-story home -- to its studs and rebuild it with new ceilings, walls, floors, plumbing and fixtures. Tools, hard hats and safety glasses were distributed. The construction supervisor gave us a short talk on safety. Assignments were made, and volunteers drifted off to different rooms to rip out the old Sheetrock.
The volunteers that day were a mixture of retirees and members of a local church group. There were about 15 of us. Most of us had limited construction skills, though a few had expertise.
The future homeowner worked with us. To participate in the program, the beneficiary has to work on his or her home and, in the spirit of "paying it forward," another Habitat for Humanity home. Future homeowners are required to attend seminars on ownership, budgeting and community involvement.
I was struck by how kind the volunteers were to one another. There was an easy give and take. Tools were exchanged, ladders were held, help was offered for difficult tasks. There was no evidence of egos, tension or workplace politics. This was the most egalitarian workplace I'd ever been in. I had no "status" here. I was happy just to do what I was asked. This volunteerism was work in its purest form.
The morning passed quickly, and at noon we took a break. The volunteers retrieved lunch from their cars and sat on the porch steps or in folding chairs. We chatted about other Habitat sites, where we're from and how we made a living. There was a retired university administrator, a few former contractors, and an immigrant architect from Brazil. No one talked about why he or she was there. Motivation was an unspoken understanding.
At the end of the workday, I helped the homeowner board up windows and doors because after-hours theft is a sad reality in some hardscrabble neighborhoods. He asked me whether I'd done this work before, and told me a little about his family. He was employed, with a good work history, but finding decent rental housing had been a struggle. He'd show up at an advertised home with his wife and three children, but when the landlord saw the kids, the house was suddenly "unavailable." Owning his own home meant not having to be at the mercy of such landlords.
His story affirmed why I was there, and it is why I've worked on several other Habitat homes since then. I want to pay it forward, too.
Reader Dave Smukler lives in Long Beach. He was vice president for human resources and labor relations at Newsday through 2004.