Categories: Habitat Happenings, Volunteer, Habitat Tucson

Bringing the sunshine: Jennie’s AmeriCorps experience

Jennie’s whole life has been dedicated to helping disadvantaged people navigate unjust systems. Now, she’s an AmeriCorps member at Habitat Tucson, and she calls herself “a walking billboard” for supporting Habitat. 

At the start of her career, she was on track to go to law school when she served her first AmeriCorps year teaching literacy to disadvantaged kindergarteners. This experience changed her life, and Jennie decided to become a kindergarten teacher instead of a lawyer. “That’s who I was for at least 15 years. I was a teacher. I was an educator.” Jennie always believed, “You can’t teach a hungry child,” so she sent the kids home with backpacks full of food every Friday so they would have meals at home over the weekend. The impact of stable housing on education: “You also can’t teach a child that hasn’t slept.” 

She began volunteering with Habitat Tucson at the Women Build. She immediately saw the value and impact of Habitat Tucson, saying: “I really do believe in the Habitat mission of decent, stable, affordable housing.” She quickly earned her “call sign,” Sunshine, by constantly bringing the light of positivity and joy to the build site.

“As an educator, I worked with very transient populations. I wouldn’t necessarily teach one kid for the whole year or the next year. It’s so, so, so important for kids to start out at elementary school and go through the same school system all the way. Habitat mortgages are 30 year mortgages. We have homebuyers right now who just had babies. Soon, they’ll go to preschool and elementary school. Their neighbors will go to the same school. They can carpool or they’re on the bus together. Then you have graduations together. That’s what it’s all about.” 

After a few years in Tucson, Jennie realized that she still wanted to pursue her love of education and justice, but that it was time to retire from teaching. She asked herself, “What else can I do?” She’d had a life-changing experience with AmeriCorps previously and loved volunteering with Habitat Tucson, so she applied to our AmeriCorps program! 

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Don’t you love teaching anymore?’ and I just have to say, “I’m still teaching,” she laughs. There are many transferrable skills, from the obvious (guiding new volunteers) to the more incidental: “This summer, we were installing windows and wrapping homes to get ready for stucco. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is what we do at the beginning of the school year. It’s bulletin boards! It’s getting them straight, and flat, and working on it with somebody safely.’” 

Jennie especially loves empowering homebuyers with new skills. “One of the homebuyer’s children turned 16 and came out to help on the build site. I taught her how to use a circular saw, even though she was really nervous. Watching her say, ‘Oh, I did it!’ was amazing,” Jennie shares.  

While her AmeriCorps position is mainly at the construction site, she can still make a big impact in the financial education aspect of the homebuying journey. “I was working alongside a homebuyer who wasn’t aware that you could have two bank accounts. I was able to teach her how to set up a second account and told her about automatic transfers. At Habitat, we’re helping those families understand how to navigate systems with historic barriers to opportunity like banking, getting a mortgage, and real estate. We’re helping them feel empowered.” 

She hasn’t only taught during her time with Habitat Tucson, she has also learned. “One of the biggest things that Habitat and this experience has given me is an opportunity to ask for and accept help. And because I’m female, that comes into play a lot. But I’m also teaching people to not always step in, or to ask first before helping.” She reflects and adds, “What’s the heaviest thing you’ll ever lift? Your own ego.” 

Curious about volunteering? Jennie would tell you: “You will have fun. You will make friends. And you’re gonna do something that changes lives.” 

“Some people say, ‘I wish I could do that. If I were younger, I’d be right there with you.’ So I ask, ‘Would you like to hear opportunities for people your age? We have jobs at our office, people who sit at the front desk, and we have a HabiStore! Even at the construction site, there’s 1000 different tasks that are less likely to aggravate or flare up an injury.’” 

The ultimate impact of volunteering with Habitat, Jennie says, is all about doing what you can do within your own sphere of influence. “I’m not going to be able to house everyone. But I can advocate, and I can help build a home. We’re building 20 homes a year, not 200 or 2000. But I get to be a part of those 20. I can make a difference one child at a time. I always want to do what I can to help somebody breathe easier, to have lightness and joy and their life, and to feel safe.” 

“I can’t connect to everybody, but in this corner of my world, what can I do to make it a better place?” 

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