Patrick Diaz’s 88 Habitat Builds

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While nailing down plywood on the trusses of a Habitat home in Pasadena, Silver President’s Volunteer Service Award winner Patrick Diaz took a moment to consider how much had changed since he started volunteering in 2010. At his first Habitat build, his fear of heights made it significantly more difficult to work on the roof of a New Orleans Habitat home on Louisa Street. Years later, working on the roof is now one of his favorite activities (along with framing). In San Francisco, he even helped work on roofs over four stories high, rolling roofing paper down the building.

In September 2016, he returned to New Orleans for the sixth time, marking his 88th Habitat build. Years before, during a series of cross-country train trips, he decided to aim for 100 Habitat builds–despite, at the time, only having completed six over all. It was his first build in New Orleans, however, that sealed his love of Habitat.

“It was in March,” he said. “It was rainy and cold. I had such a blast. It definitely changed the direction of my life. It was because of Habitat New Orleans that inspired me to always give back with Habitat. Over time that became this journey to volunteer at 100 Habitat affiliates in the US. It’s just great to be back here for my 88th. I was so motivated by volunteering for Habitat. I felt like I could keep going.”

By the end of 2013, he had completed 75 volunteer builds at 15 different affiliates in 12 different states. Seeing how quickly his goal approaching–and because of a new job working for Disney–he slowed down over the next few years to savor the experience.

“It’s interesting to see different types of houses there are built around the country,” he said. “[In New Orleans], the houses are built on cinder blocks because of the weather conditions. In California, the concern is about earthquakes, so they’ll build according to that. Because of weather up in Portland, Oregon, I was told because of the extreme weather conditions, they will have to build two layers of 2×6 wood framing because winters are really bad, as it is also in Chicago and Minneapolis. But there’s always that one person in every affiliate who is that one volunteer of a lifetime. It’s an inspiring thing to come across, and it’s always great to meet them when you end up meeting that person and you see what that person gives.”

He has thus far chosen mostly affiliates in major cities, where the public transit helps him reach build sites and where he can find convenient hostels. He intends, however, to start a new goal soon of volunteering in all 50 states, and one day, he hopes to take part in a Global Village build.

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Living in the New York area right across from Manhattan as a child, he first decided to volunteer as a way of giving back after 9/11. He learned about Habitat through his cousin, and in 2010, he started with a three day build in the Upper Ninth Ward. Having no experience with construction–he studied English literature at NYU–he had to learn everything on the build site. Now, he often finds himself teaching new volunteers how to swing a hammer.

“It’s a confidence builder,” he said, “to see their work, to see at the end of the day that they nailed together this wall and put it up. You want them to have a great impression from their first experience so they can come back. I always think of what Joe DiMaggio said: ‘when I go up to play, there’s gonna be a person who may be seeing me for the first time or maybe seeing me for the last time, and I owe that person my best.'”

He has helped build everything from single-family homes to affordable condominiums to home repair projects. He has worked on almost every part of home construction (except a few parts that are usually subcontracted out, like plumbing). He has worked with many partner families, on big builds and small builds. In New York, recently, he helped with flood relief work, helping with continuing efforts for Hurricane Sandy relief. There, he helped restore a basement in a house where the homeowner as living in the attic because the building had flooded up through to the ground floor.

“When I went down into the basement, the tile was already done, so I was doing baseboard.” he said. “Even the smallest details like that matter… Every detail matters. That’s what I think about. Painting trim, making sure the door frame is an eighth of an inch from the edge, caring about work like that. That’s what is important about the Habitat operation. I do have my favorite stuff like wall framing and trusses, but then once the house gets closer to finished, it’s more about the finer details you need to focus on. You have to put a lot of care into that because rough framing is rough framing with a margin of tolerance, but when you start painting the trim, you want to make sure you do a great job. You can easily mess up with painting, so that’s what I learned from being assigned different tasks.”

His passions have carried him around the country, and his volunteering efforts have given him new perspectives. He also volunteers with 826LA, a group that helps students with writing, and through the Disney VoluntEARS program, he has been able to use his volunteering to support their cause. The program also allows him to continue volunteering with Habitat.

“When I’m traveling and I come back home, whether it’s back home to Jersey City or back home to LA,” he said, “that sense of security means a lot to me, because when I grew up, I was an only child. I was raised by my dad. My mom died when I was four, but both my mom and my father made sure I never had to worry. I grew up in a big house for an only child, and now I’ll hear these stories–I remember one teenager I was helping write his college application, and he told me this traumatic experience about his family. They lived in a house, and they were all of a sudden told they had to leave, that they were getting evicted. I remember him telling me there was that point they did not know where to go. Fortunately, a friend in his class told him his family could stay with them. I never had to experience that, so for me, home does mean a sense of security. Growing up, I took that for granted, but doing Habitat work, hearing these stories about it in a place like LA where families will live with other families in a really small space. When it’s an illegal addition, they end up being kicked out. But sometimes, they find out about Habitat, and now they can get to pay for their own home. They get to have that sense of ownership.”