It’s not all that common to find someone whose skills and interests line up across aspects of their life, but 17-year-old high school senior Chris Dittmer has found a passion he takes from school to volunteering, and hopefully, into his future career. As he applies to civil engineering programs with a focus on environmentalism, Chris uses the construction skills his grandfather taught him to help others. He learned about Habitat for Humanity at school and, after discovering a knack in fixing things around the house and a passion for learning beyond the classroom, he decided to get involved.
Following his first build with Habitat for Humanity, Chris created Habitat Club at his high school as a sophomore and has recruited more than 100 volunteers. He and his group have since dedicated time to the construction of 21 homes, helping with repairs, advocating for fair housing legislation and fundraising. Together, The Equity Project and Rake-a-thon events have raised over $15,000.
In addition to Habitat, Chris prepares and delivers meals to 15 families every month at HomeStart, a local homeless shelter run by Inter-Faith Council for Social Service. This devoted volunteer helps members of his community build a better future from the ground up.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I like seeing change happen by my own hands. Social media has enabled us to be able to reach a wider audience online, but it’s also really impactful to do hands-on work. Being part of the change that you want to make is really powerful.
Describe your volunteer role with your Habitat for Humanity Club and HomeStart.
As president of our Habitat Club, I’ve been responsible for recruiting members and organizing meetings and events. It also includes working with other clubs in our county in a combined effort for our local Habitat chapter. Outside of the club are things like building, fundraising and organizing campaigns with The Equity Project. All funds go to renovating old homes that have been neglected and building new ones. It’s really important that we keep the communities we already have alive and growing as well as building more.
On builds, we do things like bricklaying, carpentry, scaffolding, painting, structuring roofs, landscaping, etc. There’s a wide range of jobs that are involved in creating a home and creating a community. People help are often beginners who may have never even looked at a hammer before, but we teach them. That’s also part of my job, helping everybody learn the way around and be able to build the houses themselves and also to have fun with it. Having that communication is always important. And enjoying your time building with your friends. The actual Habitat staff is great at coordinating the clubs as well.
Last year, as a club, we decided to tackle fair housing and housing inequality on a larger scale by contacting our local congresspersons about fair housing legislation. We were able to get all of our club members to sign a petition. It was a really fun way for our more politically-minded people to make even bigger changes than what they could on their own.
For HomeStart, we plan, prepare and cook meals for the homeless shelter and then deliver them once a month. I have fun cooking and feeding a community.
What were some of the biggest challenges with creating your own branch?
One of our biggest hurdles has been creating everything ourselves. We don’t have a guide or a manual from previous years that map out the road. Getting new people to commit was also a challenge. It’s important to get active members who are willing to go out and spend time actually hammering.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part of working with Habitat and HomeStart has been seeing my efforts materialize. When I drive by Lodi Street, a Habitat neighborhood project that we recently completed, it fills me with joy to see my efforts come together to become houses that families have moved into. Talking with the people who are living in those homes is also rewarding.
Habitat offers sweat equity where future owners can participate on builds to reduce the final price of the home. It’s always cool to meet the people who will be living in the house that you’re turning bags of cement and planks of wood into. Talking to people that you’re feeding through HomeStart and building those relationships is great, too. It’s good to put a face to the cause.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I’ve learned the organization and management that really goes beyond logistics for these big causes. Every issue is really not that simple, so it’s important that it’s managed right. Organizing has always been something that I’ve had to focus on in both my roles in Habitat Club and HomeStart.
But I’ve also learned the importance of patience and believing in and having hope for the work that you’re doing. Specifically, knowing that you can’t finish the whole house in one day. You’ll have to come back again and again, spending your weekends working with others, going through the different steps of construction of your final project.
Tell us abuot future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about.
Because I’m graduating, this will be my last year with Habitat Club. We’re recruiting a new leader in order to ensure the organization continues to contribute to our local Habitat chapter after we’ve graduated. We’ll also have another rake-a-thon, which is an annual Habitat fundraiser where we ask for donations in exchange for sweeping and raking lawns. That’s been a really fun event for a couple years now. While it’ll be my final one, I hope it will be a lot of others’ firsts and hopefully not their last.
I’m also looking forward to The Green Mission, another Habitat fundraiser that we created which focuses on sustainable and renewable building practices. Funds raised pay for homes that will be greener and more future-ready.
We’ve recently completed the Odie Street neighborhood that we have been working on for last couple years. I’ll be starting on our new project, for which Habitat will be responsible for creating a portion of over 250 homes as part of a new community called Weaver’s Grove. We hope our members will join other clubs in the area over the next couple of years to finish it and go beyond in order to ease the pain of housing insecurity.
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
Without any effort put in, you can’t really create change. You have to be passionate about the causes you support and the changes that you want to make. Changes don’t happen overnight. Be active, and go after it.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
It’s important that everybody knows that they can dream big. When I started Habitat Club, I was hoping to raise a couple hundred dollars for Habitat for Humanity and go out onto a couple of builds. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been able to not only surpass that but make a change on a much larger scale. You can dream big, and you can really make a difference.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Chris? Find local volunteer opportunities.