The summer that I turned twenty-two, I moved into an old bed & breakfast studio room that belonged to my company’s housing program. I was desperate for a roommate, too afraid that Human Resources would pair me up with a stranger. A colleague told me that I should introduce myself to the “new girl” working in the coffee shop. “You’ll like her,” my colleague said. “She’s really earthy, free-spirited, and she’s doing Habitat for Humanity in the fall.” I was sold. This girl was destined to be my new best friend.
Raised a Christian, Bethany Carney was involved with youth groups and volunteer programs at a very young age. Her first two volunteering experiences were her local food bank and at a home repair program in Pittsburgh (if you read on, you’ll see how this comes full circle). One week each summer from 8th to 12th grade, Bethany was involved with ‘The Pittsburg Project’ – a volunteering project to help work and repair homes in the worst areas of Pittsburg for the people who needed it the most. The summer after her senior year, Bethany felt especially revived. She even recalls having conversations with her team leader about the realization that service was something that she needed to do, not just wanted to do.
Ten months after that same team leader packed his bags and went to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to assist with Katrina aftermath, the opportunity came for Bethany to join in the rebuilding. Aside from her memories of the town and devastation, she also remembers that she mostly hung drywall – and how at the time, it seemed like the hardest thing to do. Regardless of the labor and the work, the people and community were what mattered most to her. “I was in awe of how grateful they were for what little they had, despite their massive loss,” she remembers. “It was so cool to see people so hopeful and grateful in the midst of such utter destruction.”
The trip to Katrina was what made Bethany want to get more involved in Habitat. While in college, she signed up for the Habitat Campus Club. That year, she was able to travel to Mobile, Alabama to assist with building new homes due to the large amount of people that were being relocated from Mississippi and Louisiana. While there, Bethany gained her first bit of exposure to AmeriCorps.
During spring break of her senior year of college, Bethany decided to immerse herself in volunteerism. She had the choice to go with Habitat on their next venture, or go to Brazil and try something new. She knew that a new experience was exactly what she needed. “I was so comfortable with my life, I needed to step out of my comfort zone.”She went to a small town outside of Sao Paolo and stayed in a covenant with nuns who operated nearby schools for the poorest children in town. During that week, she visited an orphanage for children born with AIDS, a home for the elderly who had been rescued off the streets, a drug rehabilitation ranch, and an AIDS clinic. Her most memorable experience was meeting a 7-year old boy, Pedro.
“He spoke no English, and I spoke about five words of Portuguese, but somehow, we learned so much from each other in one afternoon. We ran around and played, taught each other words, and enjoyed each other’s company.” She also shares what she wrote in her journal that day. “Today was honestly the most fun day I can remember in literally YEARS. I didn’t want it to end. I felt like a kid again.” Looking back, she still believes that day changed everything.
While faced with the common pre-graduation “what comes next” stress, Bethany was torn. Graduating with a Psychology major and a Sociology minor, she first considered the Peace Corps, and then remembered AmeriCorps. Lacking information, she reached out to a few affiliates and was offered a position with Austin, TX Habitat for Humanity, and as she says, “The rest is history!”
This was when I met Bethany. I can safely say that meeting her the summer before she left for Austin changed my entire world. This girl has spunk. She’s brave, she’s witty, and she wants to live life to the fullest. I am SO lucky to still have her as one of my closest friends.
Working for Habitat for Humanity provided Bethany with very detailed information about building homes. Although she had helped before, she was completely clueless in the beginning – which goes to show you that you don’t need experience to get involved. Maintaining a positive work environment, keeping things light, and sparking interest in people were some of her goals, with both her fellow workers as well as daily volunteers. During her time there she worked on about 50 homes, and was able to work and personally with family partners and future homeowners. (Be sure to check out the Habitat for Humanity website to learn more about the organization and how the process works. Homeowners work hard to have their homes built!)
“It’s so obvious that this type of service is so fulfilling for both the giver and the receiver,” she says. “They get a home and a decent place to raise their child, and everyone gets the thrill of knowing that they helped in achieving that.”
When Bethany’s AmeriCorps terms were up, she knew that she could either find a temporary job to make money and settle, or she could find something that she enjoys. Luckily, it was the latter. She applied for a volunteer coordinator position at the local food bank in Austin. After a few interviews, Bethany was hired as the Product Recovery Assistant: Once the food bank receives donations, Bethany orients and trains the volunteers to be able to process and sort these donations.
Bethany’s thoughts on volunteerism resound in my soul:
“Being involved, volunteering, serving… It’s important for everyone, whether we like it or not. It’s essential. Without it, we fail to have any sense of community. What would we be without helping each other out a bit? Inhuman, probably. Though I don’t like to admit it, it makes us feel good. I really would like to believe in true altruism – that we help purely for the sake of the other – but I have a hard time with that. Of course we want to serve the other, but there’s no denying that we gain from it as well.”
Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @soulrebelx