Retiree finds purpose as Habitat ReStore volunteer
“Welcome to my domain,” says John Harris, standing in his office in the back of the Habitat for Humanity of Hall County ReStore in Gainesville, Georgia.
The space is jammed floor to ceiling with books, tools, toys, lamps, china, glassware, oil paintings of landscapes and other curious items that Harris has yet to figure out. All are used — but useful nonetheless. After Harris attaches a price to them, they will be sold in the ReStore and the money they fetch will help Habitat Hall County build houses.
A Habitat home is a lifeline for so many families, Harris says. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2014, the store became his lifeline, the place to take his mind off of being sick and onto making a difference.
“I believe that Habitat gave me a mission to be healthy,” says the 78-year-old, whose cancer is in remission.
Harris began volunteering close to full time at the Habitat ReStore in 2016. He proved so himself so valuable that Habitat Hall County hired him on part-time — Harris jokes that they were just desperate. A workaholic by nature, he found that being an idle retiree didn’t suit him at all. He taught GED classes for a while, but that ended due to budget cuts.
His professional background made him the perfect person to sift through, research and price the assortment of donations that come into the store, everything from wicker baskets to Christmas decorations to a bin with thousands of Legos. He oversees everything except furniture.
Harris, who grew up in England, spent most of his career traveling the world as a purchaser in the tractor division of a major automaker. After retiring from there, he went to work for a manufacturing company, which specialized in tractors and other farm equipment. “I spent 40-plus years in the buying world, purchasing everything from foam cups for the breakroom to a railroad system,” Harris says. “Let’s just say I know a little bit about a whole lot of stuff.”
If he doesn’t know what something is, he posts it on the internet to see if someone else does, which is how he discovered he was in possession of a professional paper binding machine. “That’s the first one I have ever seen,” he says.
Shortly after settling in at the store, Harris experienced stomach pain and ended up having his spleen removed. “After the surgery, the doctor said, ‘Something is funky,’” Harris says. More tests found non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer that starts in the white blood cells.
Harris continued sifting through items at the ReStore during six months of chemotherapy. “The only issue I had was fatigue,” he says. “I didn’t lose my hair. Then, I didn’t have much to begin with.”
By focusing on the ReStore’s role in supporting Habitat Hall County's work, and not on his health, Harris has filled his days with purpose. “I don’t sit at home and worry,” he says, “and the days go by like five minutes. I know there are many, many retirees like me. The ReStore could be their chance to do something useful.”
Often, Harris runs into Habitat families either doing their sweat equity volunteering in the store or buying items for their homes. “I see our mission up-close,” he says.
David Sneed, director of the store, calls Harris an inspiration to those who know his story. “He comes in here with a general attitude of making a difference.”
Harris says it is the ReStore that has made all the difference in his life. “Being here just helped me so much,” he says. “It is almost selfish.”