Guest Blog: A Life Shaped by Volunteerism

Earlier this month I sent out a call for guest blog posts on the topic of volunteering.  Today’s post comes from John Conner of Fahe member, Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity.  John’s post touches on how volunteering can have a huge impact on how we shape our lives.

A Life Shaped by Volunteerism
by John L. Connor

It is wonderful that June is Volunteers Month, for I find myself coming off a nostalgic high of reflecting upon my volunteer service in West Virginia each May.  The importance and value of volunteerism and community service were instilled in us Connor kids by my hardworking and altruistic parents, and I will remain forever grateful for the example of servant leadership they provided to us. We often answered the call to be of service.

And so in May 1997, I found myself as a sophomore at Lebanon Valley College, finishing the school year and having about a month of time on my hands before my summer camp staffing at Bashore Scout Reservation would begin.  I was invited to join a group of fellow students on a mission trip to Appalachia to volunteer for a week with Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity.  My oldest brother Joe was a volunteer leader with our local Habitat affiliate, and I saw this as an opportunity for “baby brother” John to have my “own” Habitat experience. . .and in that region called Appalachia—a place of which I knew little, but for which I still held much admiration and interest.

I shall never forget the first task I did that year. We installed fiber glass insulation in the attic of a new Habitat house—a house built upon stilts to raise it up and out of the flood plain. Even as I suffered the heat of the attic and the irritation of the itchy fiberglass on my arms, I learned, of the flood of 1996 that ravished the Potomac Highlands, and heard of the even worse flood of 1985.  I discovered a region of people who—despite recurring challenges and set-backs—remained hopeful and optimistic, who were resilient beyond measure, and who inspired me to return and serve again.

During college, I served as a volunteer fireman, as well as an Emergency Medical Technician, and I remained actively involved with the Scouting programs in my Council.  I am a brother of Nu Delta chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, the national service fraternity, through which I was able to further my volunteerism on campus and in the community.  Despite so many volunteer opportunities, there was something special about my time in Appalachia, and I longed to return to that land again.

I did return to Pendleton County, volunteering with Almost Heaven HFH’s Workcamp Program three more Mays, each year seemingly more special than the one before. Upon graduating from LVC with my degrees in biology and German, and armed with my teaching credentials, I decided it was time to take a break from the classroom (regardless of which side of the teacher’s desk I would have found myself), and I enrolled to be an Volunteer In Service To America.  The AmeriCorps*VISTA program was an opportunity to serve my country in a special way, and little did I know the skills I would learn would lead to a lifetime of continued service.  I served as Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity’s Director of Community Relations and Fundraising, and I “cut my teeth” on the first of many grants I would write.  Up until that time, my only fundraising experience was selling Trail’s End popcorn for the Boys Scouts of America, so this new role definitely found me covering new ground!

Through my service with Habitat for Humanity, I met the woman who would one day become my wife, and our shared passion for the development of affordable housing opportunities ensured sufficient common ground for us to weather any storms that came our way.  Through marriage and adding to the family through children of our own, I had grown roots and established myself as a West Virginian.  Some are blessed to have been born in Appalachia; the rest of us are fortunate to get here as fast as we can!

I remained involved with Habitat for Humanity, serving as Director of Development and later Chief Development Officer, and helping to secure grant funds and raise community and financial support for the organizations growth and expansion.  And volunteerism remained a constant thread through my endeavors.  Wanting to help secure a bright and promising future to the youth in our community, I transplanted my Scouting career and served with the local Boy Scout Troop, I taught Sunday School, and later my wife and I founded the Pendleton County Young Professionals Committee with our Chamber of Commerce. I volunteered on the Board of Generation West Virginia, helping to develop strategies for how we as a state could retain, attract, and advance young talent in West Virginia, and I volunteered with Leave A Legacy of Central Appalachia, promoting planned gifts—especially through wills and bequests—for the benefit of so many great organizations serving throughout the state.

Even though I ended my employment with Habitat for Humanity last summer, and I answered the call to serve as a Reading Interventionist at Pendleton County High School, my volunteerism continues.  I volunteered to serve as the Treasurer of our Faculty Senate (then again, no one fought me for it!), I continue to teach Sunday school, remain involved with Scouting, and I encourage my students to volunteer and to serve.

So as I have just celebrated my 17th anniversary of first volunteering in Appalachia, I call upon each and every one of you reading this today to look around for the certainly countless opportunities to be of service.  I know how vastly different my life would likely be if I had not answered that call to serve so many years ago, so please do not hesitate to step out of your comfort zone and respond.  Be a leader; be a friend; be of service!