The Best Advice I Got All Summer

While he was home from college this summer, Andrew Utter volunteered for three weeks at our South Philadelphia ReStore. Here’s his guest blog about his experiences!

My school calendar isn’t always ideal. Being in a trimester system creates awkward scheduling conflicts for potential summer jobs and internships. After everything ends in mid-August (in time for the normal schools to start classes again) I’m left with a month to myself before I head back to school. After my first option fell through for this chunk of time this summer, I reverted to Plan B: scramble to find any company or organization willing to take on an inexperienced teenager for a mere month. Thanks to a dinner-time brainstorm session held in a booth at Bravissimo Pizza, the best advice I got all summer came from the Big Man himself (the Big Man referring to my father, of course).  His advice led me to volunteer at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, in South Philly.

Andrew in his blue volunteer vest outside the ReStore

Andrew in his blue volunteer vest outside the ReStore

My first day, in which I was a little too early and had to drive around the block an extra time or two waiting for the parking lot to be opened, started off in the back of the store, organizing doors. Apparently, there were too many doors sitting on the floor, and they had to be put in their proper positions in the racks. Each door, while not exactly massive in size, proved a challenge (I promise all doors are much heavier and more stubborn than you think). Jealous yet? I know you just can’t wait to sign up and make the trek into the city…

But let me tell you about the people. On any given day working at the ReStore, there are three different groups of people you’ll encounter: the customers, the fellow volunteers, and the staff members.

1. The customers. I’ll put money on the fact that you have never come across a more diverse group of people in your life. There are people shopping for the first couch they will ever own in their life, next to people searching for bargains on museum-quality chairs and tables. There are people looking to decorate their high-rise apartment with chic antiques, next to people trying to find economical solutions to their appliance needs. There are not many other stores I can think of where customers from so many different walks of life shop and interact.

The conversations about how different items are going to be used in the customer’s home may sometimes leave you more confused than when the conversation started, but by helping them walk out of the store with a smile on their face and 750 lbs of flooring adhesive in their trunk, you can’t help but crack a smile as well.

2. The volunteers. Also an eclectic bunch.  Within the group of volunteers in that day, some will know what they are doing, and some will have absolutely no clue. No matter which group you fall into, the trendy blue vests are a uniform all should be proud to wear. Much like the customers in the store, the backgrounds of each volunteer are extremely varied and each one is interesting. In my short time there, I was lucky enough to work with fellow college students, graduate students and faculty from Penn, Philadelphia high school students, work-study participants, investment bankers, and even an insurance salesman. And that’s just what you learn from the introductory conversations. Each and every volunteer is there for a different reason, but the common denominator is that they are there because they want to be. My reason, at first, was to kill time by doing something worthy of putting on a resume. After the first hour, I quickly realized I was there for much more than that.

Volunteering at the ReStore forces you to truly examine the value of an action. The exchange of a handshake and a “thank you” inspires more personal, intrinsic contentment than any dollar bills ever can. Even without acknowledgement from the customer, the knowledge that you had a part in improving their day carries weight. At least for me. And that became my reason for being there. I loved putting in the time and effort–truly loved it.

3. The staff members.  The most identifiable group of the three, they are easily spotted by their bright red t-shirts. Now, I want to preface this by saying each staff member is worthy of their own essay, and I hate to lump them all together, as they are also incredibly diverse, but the staff at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore is the most incredible and talented group of people I’ve come across in the city of Philadelphia. Each day, when I got home around 5:00, I quickly remembered that the store would just be closing. Even after closing, many of the staff stay late to prepare things for the next day. And then they go home to spend time with their families before getting up again to be at the store way before I’m even awake most mornings. “Dedicated” doesn’t even begin to describe these people.

During my average day at the ReStore, I sweat buckets. To those who know me, this isn’t much of a surprise, but regardless, the average day’s work is not easy. Lifting and moving furniture around is a constant game of Tetris. Don’t feel like your strengths are lifting things and moving them around? Spend the day repairing furniture. All of the furniture is donated, and while most of it is in great condition, screws and bolts often need to be tightened. Bed frames always need to be put together. I learned more about tools and how to improvise with the resources available than I ever have in wood shop class at school.

My Plan B for the second half of summer turned out to be the most rewarding three weeks I could’ve ever asked for. I developed a love for city I didn’t know three weeks ago. I met some of the most inspirational and awesome people. Heck, I even stayed in pretty decent shape considering the best slice of BBQ Chicken Pizza in Philly can be found a block from the ReStore at Kermit’s Bakery. Have 4 hours (or better yet a full day) to give? Go spend it at the ReStore. There’s something there for everyone.

Andrew Utter is a Sophomore student at Stanford University in California.  

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About Habitat Philadelphia

Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia is an independently chartered affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), the largest nonprofit homebuilder worldwide. Locally, Habitat Philadelphia is on a mission to transform lives and our city by building and repairing quality homes in partnership with families in need, and uniting all Philadelphians around the cause of affordable housing. Our Vision is a city where all Philadelphians live in safe, affordable homes.
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