Building a Better Future with AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity

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Graduation is starting to loom on the horizon, but you’re still not sure what you want to do. Should you leave the country to do a two-year placement with the Peace Corps? Hmm… you’re not sure about committing to live abroad for that long. Get involved with the education system by joining Teach For America? That could work… except that even the thought of spending another hour in a classroom makes you break out into hives.

Luckily there’s another option that lets you make a difference in a local community, build up your résumé, and even defer your student loan payments. With AmeriCorps, you can choose the organization you’d like to work with, and your placement will last from ten months to a year. There’s a lot of variety in the AmeriCorps programs, but one common thread is a commitment to service and community building.

AmeriCorps is a national network of hundreds of programs throughout the US, so it’s hard to make general statements about what your assignment might be like. That’s why we caught up with second-year participant Julia Von Holt, AmeriCorps Construction Crew Leader with Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia to learn more.

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What was the AmeriCorps application process like?

The application process as I remember it was just like a very intensive job application, so you submit a cover letter and a résumé to your affiliate (to the Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia part in my case), and then I had to go online and fill out the AmeriCorps application. I think there were a few essays in there and demographic information. After I submitted that I did a sit-down interview and a working interview.

[Editor’s note: You can find the most up-to-date information on the AmeriCorps application process and check out different programs in your target areas on the AmeriCorps website.]

Do you remember how you first heard about the program?

I was looking for a job, actually—it didn’t even necessarily have to be AmeriCorps, I didn’t actively seek it out—in my area I saw a posting on Idealist. I was looking for a job that used my skill set to do something good. I had already spent a year working in a woodworking shop as a shop monitor, so I had some power tool and carpentry skills, and I wanted to use those to do something good.

How did you get that woodworking experience? Was that part of your undergraduate studies?

I went to Reed and graduated in 2011 with a Linguistics degree, believe it or not. In my senior year I fell in love with my sculpture class, which led me to a one-year post-baccalaureate program through Columbia University in their architecture school. After that I was looking for a job that would bridge the gap between architecture and working with my hands.

I should note that you do not need to have any experience to do what I do at Habitat for Humanity—you can learn as you go, and many do.

What are the details of your assignment? What’s a typical day on the job like for you?

Understand that every Habitat affiliate functions a little differently, so AmeriCorps members have different roles within that. So there are different Habitat affiliates that have AmeriCorps VISTAs who are doing neighborhood revitalization, volunteer management, resource development, family services, etc. I’m an AmeriCorps National member, which means I’m strictly doing construction tasks, strictly “direct service.” From my understanding, AmeriCorps VISTAs serve in a more “systems-development” role, meaning they’re the behind-the-scenes support for organizations, and AmeriCorps National members are more on the front line, physically building homes or doing community outreach.

My typical day, I’ll show up at a site about an hour before volunteers start to show up. I’ll get everything ready, I’ll figure out what tasks I’m leading and learn any last-minute tricks I need to know. Tasks could be anything from landscaping to installing hardwood floors to painting to drywall. Everything. We do pretty much everything.

I’ll set up between 7:30–8:30, we’ll have a big morning meeting welcoming the volunteers or the company or campus groups that sometimes come out, and then we’ll split off into individual tasks with the groups that we’re taking for that day. We’ll go through a brief safety outline, why this specific step is important to the construction process, and then we get rolling.

Your work can really vary, depending on your assignment. For example last year there was an AmeriCorps VISTA who didn’t work on construction sites, but she worked in our office as a part of our family services department, so she did a lot of outreach to the families that are buying our homes and she would touch base with them and basically be their ally and go-to person getting through the Habitat program. Her role was to streamline and optimize the family services department (and, I might add, Habitat found her role so invaluable that she was hired on full time).

A lot of people who choose to do AmeriCorps are all about AmeriCorps, doing direct service, giving back to the community, so that is what drives them. But what drives me personally and a lot of my co-AmeriCorps workers is the Habitat mission (which shares a lot of core values with the overall AmeriCorps mission). What calls AmeriCorps members to service varies.

[Note from Julia’s supervisor on the distinction between National and VISTA AmeriCorps programs: National members can also have roles in areas like Family Services, Community Outreach, and Volunteer Services, in addition to construction. VISTA members tend to serve in those areas as well, but they serve in a more “behind the scenes” capacity doing process/system development (e.g. Family Services Development—like the VISTA member Julia refers to—Volunteer Services Development, Construction Systems, Resource Development).

So, for example, while the VISTA member last year may have had some interaction with the family partners and family partner applicants, her overall goals were to develop more efficient processes/procedures within the family services department (thus utilizing her experiences and interactions with the family partners to help inform those goals).]

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How do you think working with AmeriCorps differs from the other options for recent grads?

For me personally, it’s been a really meaningful way to gain skills while I’m helping out my community; I’m involved every day literally building a community. It’s a great way to investigate a field you’re interested in for a year or two or more while at the same time helping your neighbors. It’s win-win, really.

You extended your service commitment to a second year—are there many people who extend their service beyond that?

I haven’t heard of many people who choose to do it beyond a second year because it’s really hard to get by financially with the living stipend we have, but I think two years of service is pretty common.

How do you handle logistics like housing and transportation?

Again, each Habitat affiliate is different, so if you live in a more expensive city, the affiliate sometimes offers incentives, like they’ll give you X amount of dollars on top of your AmeriCorps stipend to help with housing.

For Philadelphia, our affiliate gives us a gift card every month for groceries, which is really helpful. I’m sure I could’ve had assistance finding housing if I’d wanted it, but I already lived in Philly, so I didn’t need it.

For every Habitat that has AmeriCorps, there’s a host site manager, and that is someone on staff who’s your ally, who’s looking out for you, making sure all your needs are met, that everything’s going well on site, and they’re also taking care of all the reporting paperwork that you need to do.

What are your favorite aspects of your AmeriCorps experience?

It’s really hard for me to the differentiate between AmeriCorps and Habitat. AmeriCorps is basically this umbrella organization that offers grants to non-profits that have AmeriCorps members serve there.

That being said, there are two really great parts of my experience. One is building up rapport with the community and the families who are buying houses. Part of Habitat’s model is that families have to work with us on site for 350 “sweat equity” hours and that’s in lieu of a down payment on their home, so you develop these really close relationships, see them go through this incredible process to better their lives, and better their surroundings for their families.

Over the course of a year, I get to know a family, build their house, and hand them their keys when they move in, so that is really heart-warming and makes everything worthwhile, even the rainy, freezing, or otherwise challenging days.

And the other is meeting these other great AmeriCorps members who have decided at some point in their lives to take a break from their careers and just give back and serve their community. I am leading most closely with five or six other AmeriCorps members at my Habitat affiliate, so I’m engaging with them on a daily basis and we’re figuring out everything (from how to install siding to how to manage 20 volunteers) together, so that’s really great.

Are the other AmeriCorps participants recent grads like you?

It’s actually a common misconception that AmeriCorps is just people right out of college and just a stepping stone into a career. While a handful of the people I serve with are in that situation, it’s not always the case.

One of my coworkers had a five-year career doing marine mammal research and she decided she needed a change, so she left her career at sea and signed on for two years at Habitat. My site supervisor was an architect for 20 years and left his career, started volunteering, and then did the AmeriCorps program and was later hired by Habitat. I’d say the majority of AmeriCorps I’ve met are twentysomethings who have recently graduated, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

What are some of the challenges you face?

So the most obvious challenge for being an AmeriCorps member is living on the living stipend that we have. I believe it’s set every year at the poverty level, the idea being that in order to serve you must live as the people you’re serving. Over the course of the year, I get $12,100 as a living stipend, and that’s really hard to live on, so that’s been the biggest challenge.

I occasionally face challenges being a woman in the construction industry as well. It is a shock to some people that a female can frame walls and get her hands dirty—and this shock occasionally comes in the form of some sexist or otherwise rude comment. I often get a kick out of proving those people wrong, though. Yes, I AM capable of lifting that, here let me show you a better way to use that saw, and yes I DO know what I’m talking about! And so on.

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for AmeriCorps?

Absolutely do it. It’s worth it. It’ll change your life—you’ll become addicted to service. I don’t want to be too cliché or anything, but it really does make a significant impact on the community. Without AmeriCorps members at my Habitat affiliate, they would build half as many houses as they do now, so we’re a huge amount of the leadership.

Not only do you come out of the experience with technical skills, but you also come out with phenomenal leadership skills.

What do you see as your next step?

I’m currently applying to graduate school.

Was that decision a result of what you’re doing with Habitat now?

No, I’d always planned on it. Habitat kind of solidified that desire and focused it. I didn’t know much about affordable housing before my AmeriCorps experience, and now I can’t get away from it as what I want to do.

Homework time! If you like the idea of spending a year or two serving a local community with AmeriCorps, look into some of your options. Check out the AmeriCorps website. Browse the listings on the AmeriCorps website or Idealist. And seek out current participants to find out about some of the different programs and learn which ones might be the best fit for you.

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