Justin Gerstner has been a regular fixture with Habitat for Humanity of Dane County since his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He appears every Saturday by 8:15 a.m., and he’s alongside the construction supervisor and other longtime volunteers until every stray nail and power tool is packed up at 4 p.m.
Heading into his first-year psychiatric residency hasn’t caused him to step back from leadership positions. Instead, he’s continued to support Habitat’s mission as vice president of the affiliate’s board, tithe committee member, Young Professionals member and liaison for the university campus chapter.
He’s not alone. Each year, Habitat’s Youth Programs engages more than 60,000 youth ages 5 to 25. Whether it’s through an alternative spring break trip with Collegiate Challenge, an intense two-week program through the Learn and Build Experience, or assisting an affiliate through Youth United, Youth Programs offers a variety of hands-on introductions to Habitat’s work. The goal is always that students and young professionals like Gerstner continue to support Habitat and — most importantly — adopt service as an active part of their lifestyle.
It’s been 25 years since Habitat’s first campus chapter began at Baylor University in partnership with Waco Habitat, and in the years since, more than 500 colleges have followed their lead in creating volunteer communities that are deeply engaged with Habitat’s mission. Youth Programs alumni and participants continue to fundraise, build and advocate on behalf of Habitat around the world.
“Education really shines a light on the entire aspect of service,” says Gerstner about Youth Programs efforts. “You realize you’re a small part of the solution to an entire problem. There’s so much more going on, but if you keep putting an effort into it, you’ll keep making a difference.”
Gerstner says Habitat hooks you: “It’s about building relationships and communities.” His volunteer experiences put him in touch with like-minded peers through the affiliate’s Habitat Young Professionals group, Habitat taught him about homeownership, and Habitat introduced him to volunteers who helped him complete his basement when he became a homeowner.
“Habitat has absolutely changed my capacity to be everything that I’m going to be,” he says. “Those interpersonal actions are making you a better interviewer and team player, and the leadership that I learned through the campus chapter is absolutely going to make me better.
“The team dynamics, public speaking, being confident about my decisions and myself are making me a better doctor and community member. I definitely didn’t expect this when I got into it. I realize how indebted to it I am.”