How a sledgehammer, a cement mixer, and an inexperienced college student made a difference.
I can feel the sweat soaking my shirt as I prepare to make the final swing. I bend my knees and tighten my grip. Pulling up the sledgehammer for the final death blow, I rear back with the hammer aiming for a large slab of concrete I had been battling with for the last fifteen minutes. I come down on the rock in a large arc… hard.
This single moment of arm-jarring success is the best way I can describe my experience at Habitat for Humanity. Concrete, a hardened mixture of limestone, water, and cement, is meant to last. Great cities are built out of the material with no expectation for it to crumble or break. By all accounts there never should have been a loud crack. There never should have been an explosion of dust or a moment celebration. The concrete should have won.
So why didn’t it? How did the kid from suburban Atlanta, who could count how many times he has swung a sledgehammer on one hand, win?. The reason the concrete broke instead of me is the same reason Habitat for Humanity is able to provide houses to thousands of people around the globe despite the odds. A group of untrained volunteers should not be able to make a difference. Yet in three days we did the work of a crew of trained professionals. We painted, dug, mowed, demolished, hauled, sweated, smiled, and bleed to make a difference.
This is how I felt when the final slab of concrete had splintered into fragments. Taking off my glasses I looked up and peered through the dust. The scene was so vibrant. So joyful. So invigorating. I saw inexperienced college students working under the blazing hot July sun for no pay, yet there were smiles on the faces of those around me. The people around me were enjoying themselves. Every swing, every shovelful, every brush stroke carried a weight with it. We felt important and inspired.
I could look across the road to the people standing in the yards watching us. It made me feel important. I was not only swinging a hammer, or digging a ditch, or pouring concrete. I was building a home. A place where a family would be built. A place where kids will be raised and brought up to go off into the world to make a difference. A place full of laughter, cooking, music, and joy. I never considered this when I began working on the build site. The smiles on the neighbors faces told me. The joy in their eyes and the shouts of excitement.
Breaking the final slab of concrete came with a very significant meaning. The week before I had spent over two hours ruining my clothes, while I poured a section of concrete. I hauled 80 pound bags of concrete to the mixer and sweated more than I ever thought I would for my first week of college. I stayed until the section was done because I wanted to see it through. It was strange knowing that I would probably never meet the people living in the house I was working on. I would not know their names and they would not know mine. So why stay until the job was done?
When I broke the final slab of concrete I knew why I stayed. While I may not know the names of the tenants, and they may not know mine. It doesn’t matter. I know their hardship because it is often the same hardship so many people share. Want. Worry. Need. Pain. Everyone knows what these words mean because we all experience different doses of them at different times. So while I may not exactly know their names, I did know the family well enough to know that I wanted to make something that would last. I wanted to build something that would serve the family as long as they lived in the house. I wanted to make the concrete sturdy and nearly unbreakable. Just like the concrete slab John and I had tag-teamed for the last 15 minutes.
While my time with Habitat for Humanity is at an end for the moment, the lessons learned will live on. I discovered how empowered we were as a group. We all came together to make a difference in both the lives of the tenants living in the houses and the neighbors watching us for inspiration and hope. If I can change lives with the swing of a sledgehammer, then what’s stopping me or others from making a difference in other parts of our lives.
In the summer before my junior year of high, I stumbled upon a defining moment of my life and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I had virtually no friends for the first month or two after the move. I felt lost and out of place. There were days when I began to wonder if I really was were i wanted to be in life and wonder if I needed to make a drastic change. Thinking about my time with Habitat for Humanity made me think of this trying and uncertain time in my life. I thought back to when someone picked up a sledgehammer for me and began swinging. My first friends in Atlanta were the ones who made smile like the neighbors of the houses we were working on. They gave me hope. They showed me kindness. Without them, I dont know if I could have made it through the first six months of my transition. They changed my life drastically and taught me a lesson that working on the habitat site has reinforced. While the world may be a massive place, it doesn't mean that one small act can’t make an impact.