Jenny Ackerman never thought of herself as the kind of person who could handle power tools. A nail gun? No way. A circular saw? You’ve got to be kidding.
But that was before Ackerman, a junior with a major in organizational communication, began helping to build houses for people in need with the service organization Habitat for Humanity. For Ackerman, the projects have offered many lessons about herself and her world. Learning to use power tools was just the start.
“It is such an empowering experience,” she said. “It taught me to do things that I never thought I could do. You learn to challenge yourself. And you learn that you can make a difference.”
Ackerman spent her most recent spring break with 34 other Elmhurst students, building a house for a low-income family in Mobile, Alabama. It was her third trip to work on a Habitat house. Each morning of the break, while many other college students were still recovering from the previous night of partying on the beach, Ackerman and the others were clambering up ladders and putting on safety goggles. Ackerman’s job at the work site was to install siding and paint trim, while others worked on the roof or stained fascia. At the end of each workday, the crew could see the progress they had made. By the end of the week, the house was nearly ready to shelter a family in need.
“It’s the American dream to own a home, and we helped a family realize that dream,” said Ackerman, who also has served an internship with the DuPage County Habitat for Humanity affiliate, made possible by the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action. “It’s an awesome way to
give back for all that you’ve been given.”
Seventy Elmhurst students participated in Alternative Spring Break expeditions for Habitat for Humanity this year, according to Laura Wilmarth Tyna, director of leadership, service and engagement in Elmhurst’s Office of Student Affairs. Even as Ackerman and her fellow students were working on their house in Mobile, another crew of students was laboring in Mandeville, Louisiana, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
In the evenings, after the day’s work was complete and the tools put away, the students gathered to talk about what they had done. Wilmarth Tyna said that reflecting on the work is as important as doing the work. “You make meaning of the work you did,” she said. “You ask questions about why poverty exists and why there is a need for this kind of service in the first place.”
Matt Rohde, a senior economics and management major who worked on the Mobile house, has served as a team leader on previous Habitat trips, with responsibility for leading the after-work reflection gatherings.
“You hope some kind of light bulb goes off for people,” he said. “Doing this work helped me understand that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the building of society.”
Elmhurst students engage with Habitat year-round, not just over spring break. The campus chapter of Habitat, with about 100 members, organizes weekend building projects in the Chicago area. Rohde, a past president of the chapter, was one of 12 students who traveled to El Salvador in January to work on a building site. As Ackerman did, he is working as an intern with the DuPage County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, thanks to the Niebuhr Center.
Ackerman said her internship grew out of a conversation she had at the Niebuhr Center.
“I learned so much in the internship and I never would have had that opportunity without the Niebuhr Center,” she said. “It’s such a welcoming place and they really help you develop your interests. It’s a great resource.”
Rohde said his internship gave him a new perspective on the work of Habitat.
“I knew they were about building houses, but it’s more than that,” he said. “They reach out in different ways, with advocacy and education. It’s not a hand out, it’s a hand up.”