Improving the human condition by giving back

I struggle to explain why I volunteer for Habitat. Most of our “regular” construction volunteers have retired from successful careers. Such is not the case with me — and thus, I suppose, the frequent “why” question.

Why on Earth would someone step back from “working” to give away their time? My choice to do so has baffled loved ones who witnessed for years how hard I worked to earn my doctoral degree in psychology.

I have always felt very clear within myself that this is what I am supposed to be doing. As each attempt to explain myself fell short, I eventually resorted to responding, “It doesn’t so much feel like a choice as it does a calling.” I do believe that God has called me to this work, though I have no tangible proof of this, nothing in writing and certainly no formal job offer.

Habitat volunteer Donna Ricca shares how her faith and psychology profession inform her service.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” What I’ve done by volunteering with Habitat is to step in faith. I don’t know where it will lead, but I trust in the journey.

To outside observers, it appears that I am spending my time building houses, which is not what I have been educated to do. In my mind, however, I have not walked away from my psychology profession. Every time I listen to volunteers tell their stories or help instruct, encourage and support them as they struggle with a task, I am working as a psychologist. Each time I empower hesitant volunteers to face their fears, step out of their comfort zones and try something new, I am honoring my education and training. Every time I greet someone with a smile or a hug and let them know they matter, I am attempting to improve the human condition — a goal we, as psychologists, strive to achieve. It is through the activity of building houses that I am able to help build up people.

So why do I volunteer? I volunteer because I can, because God granted me the desire, strength, knowledge, resources and opportunity to do so. I volunteer for those whose circumstances don’t allow them to. I volunteer in the hope that it will inspire others to do the same. I volunteer because it fills a space in my life that money, possessions, titles and awards have never been able to do. I volunteer because each day on this Earth is a gift, and the least I can do is to give back in return.

Why Habitat? Because I know firsthand how important it is to have a place to call home. As a result of growing up in a neighborhood where I felt safe, I was free to roam with the careless abandon and idealistic sense of possibility that only a young child can possess. This freedom allowed me to learn, to dream, to hope and to visualize a positive future.

I plan to return to my career in psychology, perhaps teaching or working in schools. Volunteering for Habitat has helped me crystallize my life path. I am now more inspired than ever to ensure that working to improve the lives of others is always at the forefront of my occupational goals.

What’s in it for me? I love the physical exercise of hammering, sawing, climbing ladders, hoisting lumber and digging holes in the dirt. I enjoy the intellectual work of calculating measurements and figuring out how to bring the architect’s plans to life. I cherish the camaraderie that develops among people who labor toward common goals in challenging circumstances.

Most of all, what I gain from volunteering is a sense of purpose. Each time my car pulls up to the build site, I am filled with joy at the prospect of being able to make a difference — to matter to someone who matters to me.

— Donna Ricca, a clinical psychologist and Morris Habitat volunteer in New Jersey since 2011