Digging For A Purpose

A reflection on my Habitat for Humanity service

Shoveling dirt (I’m on the far right).

It was 94°F, dry, and extremely bright. Every thirty seconds I had to wipe the sweat off of my brow to keep it from getting into my eyes. I was digging a ditch in between two small homes that were under construction, with four more homes to my left. Each had a different color—one was purple, one was salmon, one was turquoise, and so on. However, they all had something in common, and that is Habitat for Humanity was providing the renovations.

Habitat builds and renovates homes so that underprivileged people in the area can rent them at an extremely low rate. This practice is very useful because it allows people to safely live somewhere and raise a family, at an affordable price. We all know how much our home means to us, so providing homes to people is a huge deal. I’ve done work with Habitat in the past, so I’ve seen first-hand at how these little homes can impact people’s lives in a huge way.

However, I wasn’t only doing this by myself. There was the rest of my class, all doing something to help out and construct these homes. We were all part of a service learning program in UGA called Freshman College Summer Experience, and part of our experience was to volunteer for the Athens community. Some groups gardened, some picked up trash, but I believe that we had the most influential project.

The ditch in its early stage.

Although I was always sweating and inhaling water like it was my job, digging that ditch wasn’t that bad. It started out as a simple ditch, meant to take water runoff from the parking lot above the houses and direct it in between the houses. However, as the hours and days went on, the simple one-foot-wide ditch became an impressive house-to-house trench. Some of my work included taking a pickaxe, and loosening the topsoil enough for a shovel to pick it up. The pickaxe was fun to swing. It was heavy, old, and dangerous, much like my grandad in Vietnam. The loose dirt made by the pickaxe was used to grade and landscape the yards in front of the other houses, so it was like killing two birds with one stone.

The ditch was no easy task, however.

Every time my shovel hit the dirt, it felt like I was not making any progress. Shoveling after shoveling after shoveling, time after time after time, the dirt kept coming out of the ground, but the surface was barely scratched. Now, add to that frustration with 94°F heat, the constant flow of sweat dripping down your face and your body, and the thousands of gnats attacking you from every direction. The purpose of digging this ditch became more distant after every swing, hit, and smash into the dirt.

But finally, we were finished.

Landon swinging a pickaxe. Notice the expansion of the ditch.

The end product was impressive. After three days and six long hours of work, the ditch was finally dug. I was reminded of the purpose of this ditch, and it has an important purpose. Before our class started volunteering at these homes, Athens was under the constant dominance of rainfall and thunderstorms. In the figure above, the background shows a rock wall lining a parking lot above the houses. Because of the constant rainfall, water would collect in this parking lot and flow right in between these houses, creating a monstrosity of running water. The river created by the rainfall would flood these houses, making the work done inside completely ruined. Had this ditch not been dug at all, these Habitat homes would never be finished properly or on schedule.

I learned a lot from this experience too, but not just from digging. I learned from watching others come together to complete a task, even in the daunting heat. I also learned from the carpenters and the two German exchange students who only came to the United States to work on these homes. I learned how to measure the drop from one end of something to another, I learned how to pour concrete, I learned how to install cross beams, but the most important thing I learned how to do was to manage with what you have and make it work. The Habitat resources and supplies rely on donations and fundraising, so there are limited capabilities when it comes to these resources and supplies. However, the carpenters and students that I worked with managed every situation with what was available and did so to the best of their ability, which I believe to be applicable to life. That is one of the purposes of the Freshmen College program, along with making us better scholars.

Last day of volunteering.