By Soyia Ellison
Sierra Baylor and Casey Van Vliet wanted to show their Habitat pride at this week’s AmeriCorps Build-a-Thon in Pensacola.
So they carved it into the sides of their heads.
“We decided we needed to do something crazy for Build-a-Thon,” Baylor said.
Van Vliet takes up the story: “We’re both returning members, and last year at Build-a-Thon in Dallas, the energy was so high. We wanted to build on that passion this year.”
Shortly before heading to Florida, they took a picture of the Habitat logo to an old-fashioned Baltimore barbershop and asked one of the barbers to work his magic. They emerged four hours later with haircuts that have been the talk of the build.
Baylor, 25, and Van Vliet, 24, are construction crew leaders at Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake in Maryland.
“It’s my first job at a nonprofit,” Van Vliet said. “Everyone is so nice and so passionate about what they’re doing. It was mind-blowing to me.”
Baylor grew up in the Baltimore area and began volunteering with Habitat of the Chesapeake after high school.
“My parents were both in the Air Force for about 15 years,” she said. “I knew I wanted to serve, but the military wasn’t for me. I started volunteering with my local affiliate. AmeriCorps was the next logical step.”
She said working with Habitat has made her more confident and more comfortable talking with people.
“Before I started all of this, I was way more antisocial and shy.”
Inspired by her experiences, Baylor is planning to go to college to study human rights. But for the moment, she’s happy where she is: “It’s a great place to feel like you’re making a difference and helping people achieve what they want to achieve in life.”
‘A much happier position for me’
When Chris Brown graduated from James Madison University, he took a job as a stockbroker because it was the highest-paying job he was offered.
He was miserable.
Three months in, he quit and moved back home to regroup. Now he’s serving with AmeriCorps at Habitat’s state support organization in Virginia.
“I probably made more in two weeks [as a stockbroker] than I did this whole year,” he said, laughing. “But it’s definitely a much happier position for me.”
Brown, 23, studied health sciences and biology in college and only ended up as a stockbroker because of a connection.
“You have to be 100 percent motivated by money to do well in that field,” he said. “That’s not me. I’d like to make a significant positive impact in whatever field I choose. I’d like to leave planet Earth in a better place than when I got here.”
Initially, he planned to serve only one year. But his supervisors at the state support organization encouraged him to make it two. They tweaked his job duties so that while he continues to help with resource development, he can also learn a little about his new interest: the law.
As of now, Brown is planning to go to law school in 2015, which just might allow him to make a little money and improve the planet.
‘The next generation of Habitat’
Building alongside AmeriCorps members this week is someone well known in Habitat circles.
Clive Rainey, 67, was Habitat’s first volunteer 36 years ago. And he has spent every day this week breaking up crumbling sidewalks and hauling broken concrete to a dumpster.
“I’m here because a) I love to build, and b) I like to look these kids in the eyes, because they are the next generation of Habitat. It’s the great blessing of a life well-lived to get to see the next generation carry on the work.”
Rainey lives most of the year in Guatemala but tours the U.S. each spring and fall giving speeches about Habitat. Whenever he can, he spends time with young volunteers and AmeriCorps members.
“There’s something powerful about getting to work alongside the younger generation and be inspired them,” he said, “and maybe inspiring them a little with stories.”
‘They want to make a difference’
Rainey isn’t the only person without a direct AmeriCorps connection building in Pensacola this week.
Jordan Mazurek, who works for Texas Christian University, is also here. Mazurek represents the youth perspective on Habitat’s U.S. Council, a group that offers feedback and helps establish policy for Habitat for Humanity International.
He came to the build to get a taste of the AmeriCorps team in action and is leaving with a new appreciation for the program.
“Their dedication level is huge, and their reasons for service are altruistic and inspiring,” he said. “They’re actually doing it because they want to make a difference in the world.”
In that respect, AmeriCorps members are not unlike Mazurek.
As a college freshman, Mazurek participated in a Habitat Collegiate Challenge spring break trip to Mobile, Alabama.
“I liked it so much that I ran for vice president of the campus chapter when I got back, and won,” he said. “The next year I became president.”
Habitat made sense to him, he said, because he grew up poor and in a family that was forced to move about 20 times before he reached high school. They spent several years in subsidized housing provided by a nonprofit, without which they would have been homeless.
“I can appreciate what it’s like to not have stable housing,” he said. “When I was growing up, I never really had a place I knew as home.”
Mazurek went on Collegiate Challenge trips his sophomore and junior years as well, but missed out on a senior year trip because he graduated a semester early, with a degree in sociology and minors in political science and environmental science.
His long-term goal, he said with a smile, is to change the world. And he likes that so many AmeriCorps members want to do the same thing.
“I feel like these are people who are going to stay involved,” he said, “if not with Habitat, then with other institutions that are making a difference.”