In Diana Barbosa’s sculpture classes, she learned to use saws and drills to create art with wood, glow lights, magnets and even dry erase boards. Her creations, which focused on celebrity culture and judgment, are transfixing and thoughtful. But it was when she used those same tools for Wash U’s campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity that she felt like she had tapped into their true power. “It was so exciting to apply my skills to help a family build their home and to affect a community,” she says.
The rush she felt from creating something tangible to help others in need changed her life, and it has shaped her career. Today, as director of volunteer engagement for Habitat for Humanity’s affiliate in Florida’s South Palm Beach County, she’s responsible for recruiting 3,000 people each year to help build and improve houses. Volunteers in the affiliate build a dozen new houses annually, run a robust neighborhood revitalization program, and manage two ReStores that sell donated household items.
The logistics of running programs for volunteers ranging from college students to corporate employees can be challenging, but Barbosa loves that volunteers walk away from the experience feeling changed.
“This isn’t a handout program, it’s a hand up,” she says, noting that every selected family must put in 500 hours of “sweat equity” to help build their home, as well as make monthly mortgage payments.
And it’s not just the homeowners who benefit. When volunteers swing hammers side-by-side with the soon-to-be homeowners, they’re often moved by the stories they hear. Barbosa recalls one current homeowner, LaVictoire Dorissaint. As a single mother who immigrated to the United States from Haiti two decades ago, Dorissaint had struggled to raise her high-school daughter and college-age son, often forgoing health care to buy her kids food. After she moved into her modest new home, she could only afford an air mattress for her bedroom. Nonetheless, she made it a priority to send a $50 donation to Habitat. “She said she was so grateful for what Habitat had done for her that she wanted to give back, so another family could enjoy the blessings she’d received,” Barbosa says. These stories of generosity, even from those who are in need themselves, often inspire volunteers to make greater commitments to Habitat and other volunteer programs.
While Barbosa’s interest in service runs deep — she calls it her ministry — she says it was a view that was cemented at Wash U, where she was a part of the Annika Rodriguez Scholars Program, a community-service focused scholarship. As part of her scholarship, she and other students developed a tutoring and mentoring program for students at a local high school. Their work helped high school students lift their grades and test scores while preparing them for college-level work.
And while she left Wash. U. years ago, she still has an impact on students. Each March, students from all over the country take part in Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge Program — an alternative spring break trip to help with building homes. Barbosa hopes that at least some of the students find ways to integrate more volunteer work into their lives after they return to their designated campuses.
“With just a couple of nails, hammers, wood, and volunteers, we can make the dream of affordable housing a reality for families in need,” Barbosa says. “Serving others is life-giving, even infectious. Our acts of kindness can multiply the minute to achieve
the incredible. They have the power to inspire others to action.”
Erin Peterson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.