LIFE CHANGING CAREER
From Volunteer to Staff Member
SEPTEMBER 29, 2018
“I came here, never having been on a roof, and today I just spent the whole day with my team, putting in all of our rafters… My name is Colin Crookston. I’m 19 years old, from Orange County, California.” Once a regular American teenager, Colin encountered some free time that lead him to All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response, and then his life changed.
“I had just finished up high school. I graduated a year ago, in June 2017. I played random sports, water polo and track. Did your typical high school things, hung out with friends all the time, avoided any responsibilities that I didn’t want to do. Went to parties. I had a job as well, working at a grocery store as a cashier.” Colin describes his life before All Hands and Hearts.
“I had free time over the summer, found Project Louisiana, and decided to do two weeks of that. I fell in love. Loved it, loved everyone I met there.”
While every volunteer comes to All Hands and Hearts with a different story, most of them undergo a transformational experience, and leave with a similar love. The timing for Colin was perfect.
“My college ended up pulling my acceptance, due to paperwork, a week before I was supposed to go. I freaked out about it and was very lost.”
After doing everything he could to try and solve the problem, he faced the moment, but it helped him come to a realization. “I had applied to school for the next four years of my life, but it could also determine the rest of my life. I don’t know what I’m going to do next week, much less what I’ll want to do in 10 years. I’ve been told going back is hard, but I feel like if I really want to I can. I ended up asking how soon can I come back to Louisiana? I had no plan, this was just me pushing back from what I knew I didn’t want to do already; getting a real job, or going to community college. I was taking it as a gap year almost.”
Colin saved up and returned just over a month later, planning to be there for six months. “I stayed until the project closed. January 9th. Then we drove from Louisiana in the vans to Texas. New Year’s day we got the email that said sign up for program Puerto Rico. So I stayed in Texas for two months and went to Puerto Rico after that.”
“I am Johnny Foster, I’m 29 years old, and I’m from the greatest city on earth, Kansas City Missouri. I went to my first project in November 2013. I’ve spent a little over two years total on project.” Johnny recalls Colin’s first week with All Hands and Hearts.
“I was a site supervisor on program Louisiana, for the 2016 floods. I remember, we were at Willy Kenny’s house in Louisiana, really really cool family, we were hanging doors, installing baseboard, and trim, which is not easy work; especially for someone without carpentry experience. From day one he was picking things up quick. Within a few days of him being there, I told him what I needed done, walked away, and he made it happen. It was really impressive.”
Direct contact with homeowners influence our volunteers and staff alike. Colin also remembers Willy’s home, and every homeowner since.
“Within a week of volunteering with Johnny, I was like, I would love to do this as a job. When I came back in October I started to think about it more seriously… I remember all the homeowners I’ve met, Willy, from my first two weeks in Louisiana, he used to call me the hairy hippie, because I have long hair. He was hilarious, but I feel like when you get to know someone like that it really changes you in a good way. Someone asked me how many houses have I’ve worked on here in Puerto Rico, expecting me to guess, and I thought back in my head, and counted out every single one. Being able to remember each individual house the whole way… that’s crazy.”
Johnny recalls the growth he saw in Colin upon his return, and his willingness to fill in wherever needed, in the office or field. “The second time he came back we threw responsibility at him. He’s up for any challenge. And if anyone says that he’s not, he’ll do it better than anyone ever expects. There’s honestly nothing that man can’t accomplish if he wants to, and he usually wants to. We’ve put him in situations volunteering where he was taking on way more than most people who volunteer, and he took it in stride.”
In 2017 All Hands and Hearts began a Site Supervisor training program to help meet new staffing needs that came with the organization’s growth.
“It wasn’t until Texas, they started hiring Site Supervisors in Training, I really started to see if it was an available career path. It made me think about how other people saw me, instead of that other 19 year old that’s out doing stupid things, to actually be one that is somewhat responsible.”
In May Colin joined our Site Supervisor In-Training program, and in June he graduated as a full-time Site Supervisor.
“I started out here, learning the basics, I knew how to use the tools, but I had no idea what I was doing, or the reasons for it. I started to understand the different concepts behind what we were doing, and why we have certain procedures that we follow. Now I’m responsible for running a team of volunteers, and building a hurricane resistant roof. Which is incredible. When you say it, it still doesn’t really register.”
Johnny is not surprised with Colin’s progression, but is grateful for the development of a training program. It provides extra support to those without experience, transitioning into a fast-pace, and constantly evolving industry.
Like many adults, Colin’s journey of self-discovery continues. Surrounded by positive people, with different life perspectives, and given a new sense of purpose, his growth continues to flourish.
“I feel like I’m still very young, so I’m still learning a lot of the things that I like or dislike…It’s a very strange place to try and discover yourself, and grow up in your late teen years. Over a year ago I was a very different person. I’m definitely more open to meeting people, and getting to know them really quick. There are so many people, but every single one of them is different. You then realize I have to learn to be able to communicate effectively with everyone… It opened me up to a lot more opportunities. I feel like a more well rounded person. You learn a lot more about yourself, and others, and the way others see the world… Now I’m happy to get up in the morning. Back in Louisiana in the beginning, I used to sleep in until the last minute possible, rush down stairs, grab two granola bars for lunch, and leave. Where as when we were at the Campomento, I was getting up at 5am and watching the sunrise with some eggs. Getting my tools ready.”
The All Hands and Hearts community create growth in all ages. Volunteers and staff regularly discuss the impact of its diverse microcommunity.
“I love that we get to help people in need, and address the needs of communities were in, but even more than that, I love being able to work with so many different people, from all over the world, who have vastly different experiences than I do. I would have never ever had the chance to meet these people if wasn’t for All Hands and Hearts bringing us together”, Johnny shares.
In his time with All Hands and Hearts he has learned many valuable skills that he will carry into his future endeavours. “I know how to work really hard now, and it doesn’t even bother me anymore. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t working really hard. I feel like my work ethic has been strongly enhanced because of what I’ve experienced in All Hands and Hearts. Learned how to work hard, work smart, work safe, and make the most of your time in whatever your doing. I don’t know that I will always just work nonprofit, but I know that I will always come back to nonprofit work. That’s where my heart lies.”
Being program staff in volunteer based disaster relief is not an easy job, no two days are alike, and a sense of humor is necessary. Living and working in one place with 30-100 diverse people has its challenges. Seeing the devastating reality disaster stricken communities face, and developing personal connections to the community and homeowners is emotionally exhausting. A flexible personality is a must, and diligence to self-care is important. Even the most passionate and energized recognize exhaustion catches up eventually, but All Hands and Hearts is a one-of-a-kind organization, and environment; more often than not, they return to a welcoming of warm hugs and open hearts, because the reward of bringing a smile back to a devastated person’s face, hope, is priceless.
“Being staff is tough, but it’s really rewarding. When you get to be on program for a long time, you get to see the changes, you get to see all the different faces come through, but you’re not just a participant. You’re actually someone who gets to make the changes happen. If you see something that can be done better, or a better process for something we’re doing, it’s your voice that can really make a big difference, and Colin’s influence here has definitely been noticed, and extremely helpful. We would not be the program we are now without him,” Johnny says.
“This is like one giant family which is so cool. Everyone comes together when there’s things that need to get done.”
Story and Photos by Sarah Capobianco for All Hands and Hearts