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Joe Mulgrew

In between the timber and cornfields of rural Dubuque, Iowa, I live with my wife, Dawn, in a solid brick home built in the 1850s. It is the home of my childhood and requires a great deal of attention. As a self-employed general contractor, I possess a number of the skills required to maintain and update such a structure. That is exactly what my wife and I spend a great deal of time doing. It’s a labor of love!

When we are not working on our house we can be found in the yard, garden or barn mowing, planting, organizing, repairing, etc. The work never ends and we like it that way. With children and grandchildren in Dubuque, Minneapolis, Chicago, Madison and South Bend, Indiana, our time is carefully divided between destinations. It is no secret that my favorite is South Bend as I am a lifelong Notre Dame football fan.

Having grown up in a large Irish Catholic family in a house in the country, I learned all of the lessons of working together as a whole to accomplish a goal. This did not always ring true, as you can imagine, but it had a large and lasting effect on me. So, in 2011, after all the children were fully emancipated, I became a member of Habitat Disaster Corps by attending a weeklong session in New Orleans. That only got the juices flowing. I soon thereafter deployed to Lafayette, Louisiana, and began my journey as a Disaster Corps volunteer. Before I knew it I was working side by side with a high school group from Maine, Care-A-Vanners from Arkansas, a local hockey team, AmeriCorps members and local Habitat people. We built attractive, solid homes in a nice community. My next deployment would be quite different.

In December of 2011 an email graced my computer. It was from Habitat and they were looking for someone to deploy to Japan for six to 12 months. By mid-February 2012, I found myself in Miyagi prefecture, Japan, amid the wreckage caused by the tsunami of March 11, 2012. The challenges in front of me were small by comparison to those of the local residents. It did not take me long to discover the determination and resolve of the locals to overcome this devastation and soon I was working side by side with students, architects, engineers, bankers, retirees, etc.

My experience in Japan lasted five months and was an invaluable life experience. Among the many things I learned on that deployment were two very practical lessons: patience and surrender, and travel light.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is in the service of others.” No truer words have been spoken. My time in Japan ranks as one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

I am still working as a general contractor, which I have done for the past 35 years. The biggest difference has been instead of waiting by the phone to ring for paying work, I await that call or email for a deployment with Habitat for Humanity that has my name on it.