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Volunteer, 90, Reflects on 27 Years of Service

When Bill Giardini, 90, thinks about Heaven, he imagines it looks a lot like how he’s spent the past 27 years of his life. For most of his retirement years, Bill has worked with Habitat for Humanity of Madison County, building homes for people in the area.

“I used to tell people when we had a dedication ceremony … that what they were experiencing when they were working at Habitat was what Heaven is,” Bill said. “When people say our Father’s prayer, ‘… hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done …’ and all of that … what He was talking about was doing things like we do at Habitat. That’s what Heaven is really about, doing things for other people, living outside of yourself. That’s what Habitat provides.”

Bill has worked as the house lead, like a building superintendent, on 25 homes and worked alongside volunteers on another 10 homes. For more than 25 of those 27 years, Bill volunteered 50 out of 52 weeks of the year. He’s had to slow down lately, making the 2017 house the last one he will work on.

Cold Hands, Warm Hearts

Bill is a first-generation American. Both of his parents came to the United States from Italy in the early 1900s for better economic opportunities. Even now he has a turn-of-the-century portrait of his parents framed in his living room. It was taken before the two World Wars, one of which would pit their homeland against their newfound country.

They settled in Salamanca, New York, the only city on an Indian reservation. It was populated by first-generation Americans, so Bill fit in alongside his friends from Poland, Italy and England.

He went off to the University of Michigan to get an engineering degree before deciding that his time dealing with cold weather was over. After graduation, Bill applied for jobs that were only in California or the South. A Tennessee-based company snatched him up.

He was in Tullahoma, Tennessee, putting up wind tunnels, when a recruiter approached him one day with the opportunity to come to Huntsville and work on the missile and rocket program with one famous immigrant—Wernher von Braun.

“When I first came here, I was on a (research) committee that (Von Braun) set up to study putting things in orbit,” Bill said. “He was a chairman, and I was just one of the very, very junior members of that committee. But I had an opportunity to work with him for about a year … It was very interesting. He was an unusually brilliant guy and also very sociable, very easy to work with.”

Bill worked in engineering for 36 years before he retired. During that time, he developed a love for building houses. It was an itch that started simply enough—Bill and his wife built a new house every few years as their family expanded to include three daughters.  

“While we were building (our homes), I watched them and got involved with the little bit that I could,” Bill said. “I really found that I enjoyed it. So when I retired, I looked for something to do. And the first thing I did was build a house for one of my daughters … then I built a house for my wife and I—the kids had already grown up by then. When that got done, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I heard about Habitat and … I got involved with it.” 

Building A Future

In 1990, when Bill began working with Habitat for Humanity of Madison County, the program was still in its infancy. Even though Bill didn’t have any formal construction training, he decided to jump in and see where he could help.

“I’m a klutz at anything athletic,” Bill said. “God gave me a body that was (un)coordinated, I guess. I’ve tried everything—golf, tennis, ping pong. You name it, and I was crappy at it. But then … in building these houses, I found out that I could operate tools and things of that sort and do a good job of it.”

He’s naturally cautious—you don’t get to be almost 90 by playing fast and loose with safety warnings—so there wasn’t any concern when Bill picked up power drills and miter saws and got to work.

The benefits of working on homes for Habitat for Humanity are two-fold for Bill. While he enjoys giving back to deserving people who need a home, he also loves the social aspect of it, largely crediting his mental acuity and physical well-being at his age to his prolonged involvement with Habitat for Humanity. It was a way he could go out, make friends and do good all at the same time.

“It’s an opportunity to be with people that enjoy the same things you do and are interesting,” Bill said.

Close to Home

Bill had volunteered on several other houses before he earned the title of house lead, the person responsible for planning the work schedule, ordering materials and organizing volunteers. The second time he was in charge was special—the home was sponsored by his church, and it was being built for the church’s custodian.

Bill doesn’t remember the name of the custodian—he freely admits that he is terrible with names and tells you in a first meeting not to take offense if he forgets—but he remembers the couple and their three children.

“The thing I liked best about that was they were one of the first families to end up paying off their mortgage,” Bill said. “I really was so proud of them that they took care of their house for 20 years and made their payments, and now they own that house.”

It’s a common misconception that Habitat for Humanity gives homes away to people.

They don’t.

In order to get a house, future residents must have a need for the home, complete 350 sweat-equity hours—which includes working on their home, another home or in a local nonprofit—complete more than 50 hours of classes in home ownership and finances, and qualify for a mortgage with the organization. Habitat uses biblical principles—meaning no interest—but insists recipients pay back the cost of each home. With land and construction costs, the estimated cost of each house is $96,000. Homeowners purchase the home at the appraised value and carry a zero-percent-interest mortgage, so while the estimated price of the homes varies, Habitat for Humanity homes’ purchase price averages $91,000.

Each home includes a refrigerator, stove, washer and dryer.  A recent design includes a garage—improvements Bill has witnessed through the years.

Bill isn’t an emotional man—most engineers aren’t—but there is one part of the process that gets him every time.

“I love to see their reaction when I give them the keys when we have a dedication ceremony,” Bill said. “I love their reaction, and I get that nice, warm feeling in knowing that I’ve done something for somebody.”

The world needs more people like Bill Giardini.

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