A New Volunteer's Story

Guest Blogger and Volunteer: Ian Halsema

With retirement looming on the horizon, I'd been wondering what I'd do with my time. As a soon to be ex-software engineer, I knew watching endless daytime TV wasn't the answer, and I wanted to give back to society some of my success in life.  In addition, I wanted to improve my physical and mental health (sitting at a keyboard day after day isn't good for you!).

My wife, Carol, and I discussed various options, and she finally had a stroke of genius! Volunteer at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles!  As a homeowner, I'd always maintained my house, and I've always enjoyed "This Old House" on TV, so Habitat for Humanity was a natural fit for me.

After a week or two of adjusting to (and getting tired of) not going to work every day, I Googled Habitat for Humanity in Los Angeles and found a wide array of projects ranging from database management (too similar to what I did in my career) to construction (not at all like my career).  The nearest construction project was in Lawndale, so I got out my hiking boots, a hat and a water bottle and went there on a Tuesday morning in September 2011.


Someone once said that to be successful in life, one should build a house, raise a family, and write a book.  I had raised a family, and written requirements documents (close enough!), but I'd only maintained a house.  Habitat for Humanity was about to make my life successful.

I arrived at the home at 7:30am, and was welcomed by Nick the Site Supervisor and Kathy, the Crew Leader.  I signed in and gave them my paperwork (release, personal information, and emergency contact information - available online at Habitat's website) and was assigned to help prepare one of the two houses for installation of siding.

I spent the day clambering around scaffolding and marking the location of studs on the house's waterproof wrapping.  It was light work, but as out of condition as I was, I was exhausted by the end of the day.  I awoke the following day with sore muscles and decided to rest up, and return to Habitat the next day.

As days passed, I gradually ceased to feel exhausted and achy at the end of the day, becoming pleasantly tired instead.  I installed siding, and learned that it was used instead of stucco because unskilled volunteers such as myself could do it.  I learned a technique for installing drywall, I dug ditches for utility lines, and I built wooden gates.  I got to use new tools such as nail guns and impact drivers, and I loved every minute.

The volunteers I met were an ever-changing group, but always interesting.  They ranged from high-school students, people on vacation or unemployed, groups from various civic-minded companies and religious organizations, to service members from the Navy and Air Force.  And of course retirees like myself.  A true cross-section of America.

Many of the volunteers I met had experience in construction and gave me excellent pointers as we worked together, however it became clear to me that there was much I needed to learn to be truly useful on the construction site.

Habitat for Humanity provides training in construction through the Cornerstone classes.   These are given several times each year for $50 per student.  I wanted to add to my knowledge base and develop my skills and Cornerstone seemed to be a good way to do it.


My Cornerstone training began October 18, 2011, at the Habitat for Humanity location in Carson.  The 12 sessions were held Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and all day Saturdays at working projects.

I learned how to use a hammer (don't laugh as I did- there are a number of things to learn about using this seemingly simple tool!), how to build framing and the names of the various parts, how to cut and install dry wall, how to paint, and I learned about nailing patterns.  As we met each evening, we gradually built a simple room, complete with walls, doorways, and dry wall. 

Personally, I was most interested in framing.  I learned that to do a good job of framing, I needed to be part carpenter with a knowledge of wood, and part blacksmith with the ability to straighten nails while driving them into the wood and the ability to dig those same nails out of wood when necessary.  It takes some experience to successfully merge wood and iron!

Our instructors were site supervisors such as Billy, Sue and Gabriel who had worked in construction as contractors prior to hiring on as staff at Habitat.  We also had experienced volunteers like Marty and Clarence watching over us and showing us the fine points when necessary.  These same instructors and volunteers accompanied us at the Saturday sessions where we applied our new skills at actual job sites.


As with any skill, if you don't use it, you lose it.  I rarely get to do framing (Habitat in Los Angeles is currently focused on rehabilitating existing houses versus new construction), but when I do, I've found that I need to be reminded of little details.

Also, Cornerstone doesn't teach electrical wiring.  I'm grateful to volunteers Bill Pomeranz and Bob Johnson for sharing their electrical knowledge with me!  I'm learning the correct way to wire a house, and I hope to know the National Electrical Code some day.

I've learned that what you get out of life depends on what you put into it.  By working to help others get decent homes, I've gained knowledge, skills and health.

And that is success!

Related Posts:

Cornerstone Construction Training Class Graduation

Happy Anniversary to Habitat to Humanity of Greater L.A. ReStores

ReStore Volunteer Spotlight: Roxley Pratt

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