A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

For student volunteers, WKU Habitat for Humanity changes lives both personally and professionally

Photo from WKU

Next week, nine members of Western Kentucky University’s Habitat for Humanity Campus Chapter will be spending their spring break volunteering in Greenwood, South Carolina.

Since 2003, more than 850 WKU students have worked on Habitat projects in more than 90 locations as part of Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge program that builds houses and hope in communities.

“Habitat for Humanity International says this about the Collegiate Challenge program, ‘One week can change a life – Forever.’ Many students enter the week thinking that they are going to go and change the life of a deserving family, this is absolutely correct, but what the students do not realize is that the life that is also changed is their own,” said chapter advisor Bryan Reaka, a faculty member in WKU’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

In South Carolina, the WKU group will be painting and installing interior flooring of a home that is nearly ready for the partner family to move in.

In addition to Reaka, participants in the trip include students Kaci Carruthers, a sophomore Dance major from Louisville; YukFong Chiu, a senior Architectural Sciences major from Bowling Green; Hannah King, a junior Psychology major from Brandenburg; Emily Jacobson, a freshman Biology major from Louisville; Caleb Harter, a freshman Manufacturing Engineering Technology major from St. Louis, Missouri; staff members Kara Bekebrede of Louisville and Michael Williams of Cynthiana; and Reaka’s father, David, of Belleville, Illinois.

“The Collegiate Challenge program exists to productively put the energy of young people to work during breaks from school,” Reaka said. “This says a lot about the character of the young people who choose to spend their time away from school helping people they do not know. The amount that young people learn about themselves in service, ability and confidence can never be taken away.”

Members and alumni of WKU Habitat chapter say the program provided opportunities for them to help others and to become involved on campus and in the community.

WKU junior Hanna King works on a Habitat for Humanity project (Photo from WKU)

“I got involved with WKU Habitat for Humanity during my freshman year,” said King, who serves as chapter president. “I randomly decided to go to a shed build and I fell in love. I have been involved ever since. I have gained friends, knowledge, skills and experience with my experiences with Habitat. Habitat is like my second family and I really needed it after I came to college.

“I help with builds, fundraising and educational events here on campus. My favorite experiences within Habitat, though, are College Challenge Trips,” King said. “If a person is looking for a way to get involved within the community, Habitat is the place to go. Come out to a build or activity and see if you fall in love with Habitat like I have.”

Harter said Habitat played a role in his decision to attend WKU after he learned about the chapter during a campus tour. He learned last fall during a campus organization information fair and began to attend meetings and project builds.

Harter encourages students to seek out organizations at WKU that fit their interests. “I would tell them that Habitat for Humanity is a great way to get involved with the community, make friends, serve others and have fun,” he said.

“I have gotten the opportunity to serve others and do something I love: build things. I have also made friends,” said Harter, who serves as the chapter’s construction coordinator. “It is very rewarding to serve others and see how I can impact their lives. I believe that this interest was given to me by God.”

Chelsea Smith’s interest in helping others also stems from her faith. “As a Christian, it is my duty to help those around me that need it,” said Smith, a junior Biology major from Somerset. “We all have faced struggle of some sort in our lives, and we all know how much it means to us when someone is willing to help us in our time of need.”

Smith didn’t become involved with Habitat until a December 2017 trip to Exmore, Virginia. “The reason for my late involvement is simply because I didn’t know that the opportunity was there,” she said. “That is why I believe it is very important to get the word out about Habitat and ensure that other students don’t miss out on this opportunity to do hands-on work that makes a difference.”

Missy Graehler, a Social Work graduate student from Lexington, became involved with the Habitat chapter as part of Big Red’s Blitz during her first week as a WKU freshman in 2011. “I would absolutely say that being a part of Habitat for Humanity was a defining part of my undergraduate college years,” she said. “I found a sense of belonging as well as pride in knowing that I was a part of something that was so much bigger than myself.”

Michael and Kendra (Whitaker) Harruff met as WKU students on a Habitat for Humanity fall break trip and were married four years later. (Photo from WKU)

For Kendra Whitaker Harruff, the Habitat Campus Chapter changed her life personally and professionally.

“I became involved with the WKU Habitat for Humanity my junior year,” the 2015 graduate from Milton said. “I felt that I needed a change in my life, and Habitat did that for me. I was surrounded by a group of fun-loving people who shared the same passion as me. We all just wanted to make a difference. This all connected into what I was studying as well – architectural science.”

Habitat inspired her to shift her career ambitions from architecture to urban planning. Today, she is a graduate student in the Master of Urban Planning program at the University of Louisville and is the Community Development and Design Manager at Habitat for Humanity of Louisville. “I owe all of this to the WKU Campus Chapter,” she said.

She also met her husband, Michael, on a fall break trip to West Liberty. “We both had chosen to join Habitat for the same reasons – we felt inspired to change our lives and give to others. I could tell you the exact spot where we first spoke to each other – we were digging a drainage line outside of a Habitat home. I found out that he was from Oldham County, and I shared that I was from Trimble County. The rest just fell into place! A little less than four years later, my best friend became my husband.”

From Western Kentucky University

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