Building Confidence, Community, & Compassion

Building Confidence, Community, & Compassion

by Head of School Andy Chappell, The Derryfield School

Spring Break, 2023

“Habitat provides a simple but powerful avenue for people of different backgrounds to come together to achieve those most meaningful things in life. A decent home, yes, but also a genuine bond with our fellow human beings. A bond that comes with the building up of walls and the breaking down of barriers.” Jimmy Carter, former US president, and Habitat volunteer

Thirty years ago this month, in the weeks leading up to spring break during my freshman year in college, I was walking past a classroom and saw a sign that read, “Do you have plans for spring break? If not, come on in and learn more.” As a freshman in college finding my way and looking for adventure, I walked in and learned about a spring break trip to Miami, Florida with Habitat for Humanity. Sounded like fun to me, so off I went to enjoy a week that would lead to life-long memories and a passion for an organization and its mission, which is to“…bring people together to build homes, communities, and hope.”

During the first week of Derryfield’s spring break, eleven Derryfield School Juniors, Ms. Barsi, and I traveled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for a week-long trip to build houses with the Habitat for Humanity Chapter of Forsyth County. What a week! We put in five full, productive, solid days of hard work, framing, sheathing, blocking, flooring, siding, helping to pour footers, setting up scaffolding, moving trusses, and, of course, cleaning up. Our group, as is true of most Habitat volunteers, had limited construction experience. When the week started, there was a learning curve, but it didn’t take long for our crew to jump in, learn quickly how to do what was asked and enjoy what it means to accomplish a full day of hard work. 

Working alongside future homeowners; AmeriCorps members; and skilled, friendly, and generous construction supervisors, we walked away with new skills, tangible results, and a number of lessons learned. I was especially proud as Head of School to hear from a different Habitat staff person each day how impressed they were with our group. The Forsyth County Habitat affiliate in Winston-Salem, NC hosts many volunteer groups, mostly college-age and older, and multiple Habitat supervisors shared how impressed they were with how much initiative our students took, how kind and respectful they were, and how much they accomplished throughout the week. For me, however, as I reflect on the week, the lessons learned were less about how many walls we constructed and raised, flooring put down, and siding installed. Instead, it was much more about the challenges we faced and the obstacles overcome. 

The knowledge consumed and skills developed over the week was not possible without what I would argue were the two most important lessons from the week: 1. Get out of your comfort zone, and 2. Work together to accomplish a shared goal. By electing to go on the Habitat trip, eleven students chose to take on something new, something different, something difficult. With steady guidance and persistence, they learned, overcame, and saw the tangible results of their week of work. By working in groups of two or three on almost all tasks, students learned quickly that they needed to assign roles and hold each other accountable. For example, someone needed to measure, another to cut the wood or flooring, and then all together to build the wall or install the floor. By the end of a particular task and certainly by the end of the week, there was a clear sense of accomplishment and pride in what the group–not just one individual person–had accomplished together because these students were willing to get out of their comfort zone, put in the hard work, and collaborate effectively as a team.

The opportunity to learn and practice these skills extended beyond the job site. Living together with your schoolmates, beloved art teacher, Ms. Barsi, and Head of School for a week in the same house, ”The Lodge,” presented a number of potential challenges, but this group hit the ground running from the first night, putting their dishes in the dishwasher, baking cookies and cinnamon rolls, whipping up scrambled eggs in the morning and an amazing pasta meal on our final evening, making a schedule for when showers would happen, organizing a communal alarm (i.e. multiple cell phones going off at the same time to start the day–not my favorite part of the day!), playing games together late into the evening, and just simply laughing and having a good time together during car rides and construction breaks. We also had the chance to explore Winston-Salem, North Carolina by interacting with locals at the build sites, Walmart, Krispy Kreme, CVS, Sweetfrog Frozen Yogurt, YMCA, Wake Forest baseball games, bowling, thrifting, and conquering an Escape Room. Whether it was at The Lodge or out in the community, it was impressive to see the group learn to live together by reaching a consensus about what to do and enjoying their time together. 

Finally and most importantly, as I reflect on this week–the walls built and raised, the floors and siding put in place, the card and board games played, the sites visited, the laughs, and time spent together–I could hear the whisper of the Derryfield School founding philosophy: “Recognizing that academic achievement without compassion and concern for others is meaningless, we are committed to purposeful involvement in the world outside our school in both the local and the global community.” I have no doubt that our Founders would be proud that Derryfield students and teachers are living out their vision by partnering with the Habitat for Humanity affiliate of Forsyth County in Winston-Salem, NC “to achieve those most meaningful things in life,” as President Carter noted. 

As we prepare ourselves for the final two months of the school year–the papers and projects, the grammatical constructions and mathematical formulas; and the games, performances, and concerts–may we, the Derryfield community, remember and live out what the founders of Derryfield envisioned, and the eleven Derryfield students, Ms. Barsi, and I were reminded of this past week during our time in Winston-Salem.

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