So Much More Than Expected

By David Shiels, Habitat for Humanity Ireland volunteer turned construction supervisor

I’m a carpenter by trade, and when the Irish economy crashed I lost my job like many other construction workers. I wanted to keep busy and heard that Habitat for Humanity Ireland was recruiting volunteers for a new project they were starting. I signed up to volunteer, and after a few months I became a staff member.

The first project I worked on was the renovation of four Victorian Dublin City Council properties that had been derelict for more than five years. The council handed the properties over to Habitat Ireland to renovate and sell to low-income, first-time homeowners.

The properties were based in a community close to the Dublin city center with access to essential services. Once, they had been a focal point for community activities, such as Irish dancing lessons, but in recent years, they were a focal point for all the wrong reasons. They were pigeon-infested and the scene of antisocial behavior and illegal dumping.

Habitat Ireland selected the homeowners from the City Council housing waiting list based on their ability to pay a mortgage and willingness to contribute sweat equity. One couple had been living in a one-bedroom apartment with their two young children. If one child woke during the night, everyone did. This caused high levels of stress and anxiety. Their low income, although consistent, meant they had little hope of getting a mortgage to move into a bigger home until they were introduced to Habitat Ireland.

On-site, the family worked alongside their Habitat homeowner neighbors and more than 260 volunteers from the local community and corporate sector. Often there was an infectious atmosphere with everyone encouraging each other to get the job done. I often struggled to get people to take a tea break!

Along the way, we had a few famous visitors, including Habitat Ireland’s patron, President Michael D. Higgins. The president’s residence is close by, and he came to meet his new neighbors shortly after being elected. He also encouraged the volunteers whose work is a practical example of the active, inclusive citizenship his tenure promotes.

That renovation is now complete and Habitat Ireland has moved on to partner with the City Council to renovate other properties. The four families are settling in well and making the most of their reduced stress levels. The wider community also has been transformed. The once-derelict buildings now have permanent residents and are a positive focal point for the community again.

As I reflect on the project, I could never have imagined that volunteering to keep busy and learn new skills while unemployed would lead me to meet so many inspiring people who come together to transform the lives of families in their own community. Time and time again, I’ve seen how Habitat’s model ensures that everyone who engages in our work gains so much more than they expect — including me.