Real life 101
houses with Habitat for Humanity or spending a year teaching children in
Namibia can enrich your education beyond measure
by Camille Dodero
From 10,000 feet away, the house could be mistaken for an
anthill: it's a convex mound with creatures scuttling along its slopes and
circling its sandy base.
From 100 feet away, it's a tan duplex sitting on a hill on Bower Street, in
Quincy. It's under construction, the social insects grazing its frame are
people, and their waggling consists of hammering, sawing, and digging. Two of
them are on the roof, dressed in winter jackets and work boots. Knees bent and
backs flat against the inclined bulkhead, they're positioned as if they're
about to do sit-ups in an aerial aerobics class.
From the dirt below, a voice teases, "Hey, no lying down on the job."
Like beetles on their backs, the roofers wriggle around as if they're trying
to flip over. "Hey, give us a break," one finally responds. "We've already
nailed six nails today."
Six nails since 9 a.m. And it's noon.
For a carpenter or a construction worker, six nails in three hours would be a
very meager yield. But these "roofers" aren't skilled carpenters charging
hourly rates for their work. They're volunteers helping South Shore Habitat for
Humanity (SSHH) dress a house. And for Linda Murphy and Barbara Vega -- who
work as nurses in their day jobs -- six nails in three hours is quite
In 1976 Habitat for Humanity International joined the fight against poverty
with a lofty ambition -- to eliminate all substandard housing from the world.
But it wasn't until eight years later that the organization distinguished
itself nationally, when former president Jimmy Carter embarked on a weeklong
Habitat project in New York City. Loyalty to its mission, as well as Carter's
10-finger PR lift, has helped the ministry establish more than 1500 US
affiliates during its 22-year lifespan.
In its 13-year existence, SSHH has helped more than 20 families upgrade their
living conditions. Administrators field donations of both land and money and
oversee the building process, but none of SSHH's projects would be possible
without the efforts of weekend volunteers like Linda Murphy and Barbara Vega.
"I learned a lot today," says Murphy, after dismounting from the roof. "This
reminded me of a simple lesson you learn in kindergarten: if you open your mind
and cooperate, you can learn how to do just about anything."
Usually, volunteerism doesn't focus on educating the volunteer. In theory,
it's an altruistic endeavor: giving up time and energy to benefit a cause,
institution, or group of people that wouldn't otherwise receive the help. But
Murphy's "I learned a lot" isn't an unusual sentiment for volunteer workers.
Often, in fact, the benefits of volunteer service are reciprocal. Workers toil
and sweat, making both mental and physical sacrifices; but at the same time,
the challenge helps them develop, learn, and grow.
As a means of a formal learning, volunteerism smudges the pencil-drawn lines
of academia. The results of its hands-on, dirty-fingernailed lessons are much
more difficult to measure than, say, a test on logarithms or the Cold War. And
compared to course syllabi, textbooks, or photocopied handouts, its learning
tools are intangible.
But such secondary sources can't possibly offer the same breadth or depth of
"You can read about Third World development in Newsweek or Time,
but it really doesn't sink in," says Debbie Fillis, a 23-year-old Peace Corps
volunteer teaching in Namibia. "For me, at least, I didn't really understand it
until I was seeing it every day."
Fillis is one of approximately 6700 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees
stationed in 80 countries around the world. Since the agency's inception in
1961, during the Kennedy administration, the US has sent 152,000 volunteers to
134 countries in an attempt to "promote world peace and friendship" through
service and immersion.
To Fillis, the Peace Corps promotes perspective, too. "Americans are so
self-centered," she says. "There's so much in the world you can't see from its
After three months of teaching math and natural economy (environmental
biology) to Namibian teenagers in the 11th grade, the BC grad discovered
something that would make an American feminist -- or any independent woman in
the Northern hemisphere -- cringe. Fillis noticed that female "learners"
(Namibian students) weren't, well, learning.
"I asked them, 'What's the problem? Why don't girls do work?' And they all
said, 'Miss, girls are too busy doing their boyfriends' laundry,' " Fillis
says with a sigh. "Meanwhile, all the boys here have at least two
So she and a few other teachers decided to launch an after-school girls' club
in hopes that the special attention would encourage the young women to study.
Although the informal club has been meeting for only a month, Fillis has
already noticed a difference.
"My math class is a lot of girls. At the beginning of the year, I could tell
they'd never understood a word of math in their lives. But since we've been
meeting and I've been tutoring them, these girls are getting math," she says.
"Seeing progress is really, really nice."
As for her own personal progress, Fillis reflects, "I've learned more about
myself and about the way the world works in the Peace Corps than I ever
would've in a grad program."
And she has a point. Ninety-minute lectures and 10-page papers on
Namibian culture can teach a lot, but few lectures rival the richness of
cross-cultural immersion. Wearing Namibian dress, hitchhiking on African roads,
and using the Afrikaans language provide a vivid cultural experience that's all
but impossible to gain from a speech or a book.
Think of volunteering as an extension of conventional classroom learning, not
a rejection of it. Teaching math and science in Africa for two years can
supplement a bachelor's degree. Spending Saturdays hammering nails in Quincy
can complement a career. And unlike even the most educational academic course,
these sweaty gestures reach out to those in need and invest in the common
City Year, a subdivision of the government-funded AmeriCorps National Service
Network, operates under this very premise. The program offers young people ages
17 through 24 an opportunity to serve their urban community full-time for a
year. The Boston-based program doesn't consider itself a substitute for school,
but it recognizes that many people in this age group do remove themselves from
academic settings for various reasons. City Year has worked with more than 3000
young people since 1988. With its strict guidelines (chronic tardiness will get
a member expelled) and rigorous schedule (physical training first thing every
morning, rain or shine), it has helped many of them refocus, build a future,
and employ their talents in disparate corners of their community.
"After high school I wasn't prepared to go to college," says Noah Youngstrum,
one of this year's corps members. But, he adds, "I wasn't ready to work a
full-time job, either."
After a year and a half of working in elementary schools as a corps member,
Youngstrum says that "City Year has been the greatest thing for me. Now I'm
prepared to work hard and put in the extra effort." The 19-year-old Jamaica
Plain native has even won two public-service awards during his time with City
Year, giving him $10,000 dollars in scholarship money to put toward that extra
effort at UMass Boston next fall.
Not only did City Year "make a huge difference" in his life, but it also
allowed Youngstrum to make a huge difference in someone else's life.
Last year, when he was a library assistant at the Quincy elementary school, in
Chinatown, "there was a fifth-grader there named Jason. He had been suspended
three times and wasn't allowed to go on field trips anymore," Youngstrum
recalls. "Jason has ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and so do I, so the
principal of the school asked me to be this kid's personal chaperone on field
Jason was so well-behaved with Youngstrum that the school arranged for the
corps member to tutor Jason in math every day.
"We did math, and his math grades improved," Youngstrum says, "but another
thing we did was talk. He would have these strong emotions about the way the
teacher was treating him. I would tell him, 'That's your right to have these
feelings, but when you get in trouble because you're mad at the teacher, you
just cut off your own nose.' "
Looking back, Youngstrum says, "I think I really got through to him. He didn't
have a father at home, and his big brother had moved out many years ago. I felt
like I was able to be there for him. It was the coolest experience."
Of course, there's no university certificate issued for being a good influence
on a young boy, teaching teenage girls math, or building a family's future
house. But any of these accomplishments might just be "the coolest
And how do you test that?
Camille Dodero is an Online Content Coordinator for the Boston Phoenix.