European Volunteer Information

Downtown Athens, GA
Downtown Athens, GA

WHO WE ARE AND WHAT WE DO

Habitat construction crew with new homeowner

Athens Area Habitat for Humanity serves to construct or renovate houses and rental units to provide affordable shelter for low-income residents in our community. We also do some home maintenance construction, like fixing leaky roofs and building access ramps for disabled homeowners. Our ReStores are thrift stores where we sell donated home items and use those funds to pay for our construction projects. Both the ReStores and the construction sites play a vital role in our mission and you will get to experience both by alternating your time working in the stores and working on construction.

ATHENS HABITAT STAFF

Check out the staff page to see the Habitat staff for the office, construction, and ReStores. There are five full-time employees in the office, one full-time and two part-time employees on construction, and several of each in the two ReStores. Doug Carver is the head construction manager and who will be your most direct authority during your time in Athens.

ARRIVING IN THE U.S.

You’ll be flying in to Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, where you will be met by a Habitat representative who will drive you to Athens, GA, approximately 2.5 hours to the east. (Yes, that’s the nearest international airport — see the section below on distances in the US.) Important: Be sure to have your work letter with you as you pass through Immigration & Customs, and go through C&E together in the same line with the other volunteers and present your letters with your passports. Doing so will ensure that you receive a 1-year stamp rather than a 6-month stamp, which is critical to avoiding problems with immigration during your time here.

WHAT YOU’LL BE DOING WITH HABITAT

Upon your arrival,  you will receive your own tool belt, hammer, tape measure, speed square, and utility knife.  Wearing safety glasses on the job site is a must (we will provide them) and hearing protection will be available.  Doug will train you in the safe and proper use of tools such as circular and table saws, air nailers, ladders, grinders, and drills.

In the construction department, work can vary quite a bit.  One day you may be connecting pipes to provide water to the sinks and toilets in a house, the next day putting shingles on a roof.  Some days we are just loading and moving lumber. But primarily the work is carpentry. Building ramps, framing walls, installing a roof, etc. all require the ability to saw lumber and nail it together. We install windows. We install doors. We install roofs. We paint. We build!  And the better you get at learning these tasks, the more responsibility your crew leader will give you.

Usually one exchange volunteer is assigned to the thrift store each week. While working in the store, you may be assigned to help unload donations onto the salesfloor and load purchases for customers, or you may be assigned to the truck picking up donations for the stores. While the thrift store work may seem unrelated to the construction work, much of the funding for construction and renovation comes from donations sold at the stores. So without the store, much of the construction project work we are currently doing would not be possible.

Under our terms of service you receive 4 “sick days” and 20 vacation days to take off work.  Many past volunteers have saved up their vacation days to make an extended trip to other parts of the USA (see the section below regarding distances).

College Avenue, Athens, GA
College Avenue, Athens

THE CITY OF ATHENS, GA

Athens, GA, is the location of the University of Georgia, which hosts about 35,000 students. Our current volunteers compare it to the town of Freiburg, Germany, although Athens has about twice the area and half the population, and is only a little over 200 years old. While most of the staff at Athens Habitat are older folks, Athens is full of people your age and provides plenty of opportunities for entertainment. Athens is consistently ranked as one of the best college towns in the nation, and it has a thriving music, art, and food scene outside of the university. Plus, the football team is one of the best in the nation. (That’s American football, by the way, not what the rest of the world calls football, which we call “soccer”.) For information about the town of Athens and its surroundings, like where to find live music and good food, check out our Collegiate Challenge page, which is chock full of useful tips.

If you’d like to make connections with university students your age, a good place to start is with students in the Germanic and Slavic Studies program at UGA. Many of them will welcome contact with native German speakers, and it can give you a little break from having to speak English all the time. You can visit this page to see a list of events being hosted by the department. And you can visit this Facebook page to see what the German Student Organization is up to.

WHERE YOU’LL BE LIVING

While you are with us, we host you in one of our renovated apartment units. The units are humble and are designed for low-income residents, although yours will come furnished. You will be living close to the people that we assist in neighborhoods we are trying to stabilize. We feel this is important for you to experience so you can fully understand the type of assistance we try to give and understand the type of communities we are trying to assist. You will live in a 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom unit that has a kitchen and living area. Washer and dryer are not included but we have several recommendations for laundromats close by.

TRANSPORTATION

Athens city bus
Athens city bus

Athens has lots of bus lines that you can buy a pass for, and we will have bicycles for you to use during your time with us. However, each year our exchange volunteers have a car that they buy from the previous group, then sell to the next group. You do not have to do this, but we highly recommend that you do, and each group eventually does. Having a car makes it so much easier to get around town (most US cities are built for cars) and it allows you to explore areas outside of Athens such as Atlanta or the beach or the mountains nearby (see the section below on distances). We have even had some volunteers take the car up to New York City! One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you’ll need insurance for any car you own or lease, so if you want to have a car you’ll need to budget for that expense. (Click here for an overview of auto insurance for non-US citizens.)

FOOD

We give you each a $300 allowance for personal spending each month, and Cici in the office picks up food for you every week at the food pantry. Again, this is humble but we want you to understand what the lives of the people we assist are like. Cici will be sure to pick out food you like and are used to, as long as you let her know your preferences.

CLOTHING

When you arrive, we will help you buy work shoes and good socks, and we usually have plenty of good work pants in the ReStores that we can give you, and we will give you gloves and several Athens Habitat shirts that you will wear when on the job. We will also provide a lined work jacket and a toboggan cap for the winter months, which are much milder here than in northern Europe. (Click here for an overview of the Athens climate.)

SOME THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT AMERICA

There’s always some “culture shock” when you travel to another continent.  And while we can’t prepare you for every difference between Europe and the United States, here are some important things to keep in mind….

Dates:

In the US, dates are written in Month/Day/Year format rather than Day/Month/Year.  So if you see the date 12/10/19, that’s December 10th, 2019, not October 12th.

Greetings:

In the US, you can expect to be greeted with questions such as “How are you?”, “How’s it going?”, “What’s up?”, or “How you doing?”  Please be aware that this is just our way of saying “Hello”.  You are not expected to actually answer a greeting question by saying how you are or what you’ve been doing.  In fact, it’s very common to hear an exchange of two questions when people meet, neither of which is ever answered, such as “Hey, how you doing?” followed by “Oh, hi, what’s going on?”  The expected response to “How are you?” and other such questions is almost always positive, no matter how you really feel.  Common responses are “Fine”, “Great”, “Pretty good”, and “Not bad”.  The expected response to questions like “What’s up?” or “What’s going on?” are “Nothing much, how about you?” or “Same old” (short for “same old thing”) or “Doing great”.  Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.

Taxes:

In the US, displayed prices do not include tax.  In Athens, the local tax is 8%.  This means that if something is priced at $1.50, when you get to the register you will be charged $1.62.  We’re just used to it here, but for visitors it can be confusing, and sometimes embarrassing.

In the US, tips are considered part of the cost of dining out.

Tipping:

Tipping at restaurants and certain other places in the United States is required, not by law but by custom. (The exceptions are the fast food chains like McDonald’s or Wendy’s which do not accept tips.) If you eat at a restaurant with table service in America, your server is paid mostly by tips. The restaurant is probably only paying $2 or $3 per hour, so if you fail to tip it is not just considered rude, it is taking a bite out of your server’s income. You absolutely must tip at full service restaurants, no exceptions. We recommend tipping 15% or 20% of the total bill (or the pre-discount total if you are using a coupon).

The same is true for bars and coffee shops, including bars inside restaurants. In a small town like Athens it is expected that you will tip $1 for each beer, cocktail, soft drink, or coffee that is prepared and served by a bartender or barista (more if you’re at an upscale place in a larger city like Atlanta).  We have an arrangement with the owners of a coffee shop across the street from our offices, called Jittery Joe’s, who give our staff coffee for free — you must leave a tip for the barista when you get coffee there (we recommend $1 per coffee) even though you will not be charged anything for your drink.

If you see a “tip jar” by the register at a counter-service restaurant, you are not required to tip, but it is considered polite to put something in the jar, usually $1 or just your spare coins for a very small order.

You should also tip taxi drivers (15% or 20% of the total fare), airport shuttle drivers (if they handle your baggage, $1 to $2 per bag), and barbers ($5 for a men’s haircut is fine).

You do not tip bus drivers when using the local bus system in Athens or any other American city.

If you want more details on tipping — which, to be honest, is so confusing that we Americans are often unsure what to do — check out this article from CNN.

Distances:

The United States is a very large place!  The continental US is roughly the size of Europe. The state of Georgia alone is nearly half the size of Germany. Atlanta may look very close to Athens to you on a state map, but it’s an hour and a half drive between the centers of the two cities.  Orlando, FL (home to Walt Disney World) is a 7 hour drive from Athens. Nashville, TN, is a 5 hour drive. A drive to New Orleans takes 8 hours. New York City is 13 hours away.  Boulder, CO, requires 24 hours of driving time.  And to get to San Francisco or Los Angeles you’ll need to spend 35-40 hours in your car.

Because the distances between cities in the US tend to be so large, distances are usually given in driving times rather than miles or kilometers.  In fact, we often have no idea what the distance of a trip is because we tend to think in terms of trip-time instead.  And you should be prepared for all distances to be measured in miles rather than kilometers.  That includes speed limits as well (more on that below).

Measurements:

The American system of measurements is extremely confusing if you are accustomed to the European metric system.  In fact, it’s so complex that most Americans can’t tell you off the top of their heads how many feet are in a mile or how many pints are in a gallon.  Some consumer products use the European metric system, such as one-liter and two-liter bottles of beverages, but most do not, so it’s a good idea to download a US-to-metric conversion app to your phone. Here’s a useful site that can give you some idea of how US standards compare to European ones: Metric conversion charts.

We also measure temperature differently, in Fahrenheit rather than Celsius.  This can be important when deciding what to wear when you go out in the morning.  Here are some comparison points:
0 C = 32 F (freezing)
5 C = 41 F (cold)
16 C = 61 F (cool)
24 C = 75 F (mild)
27 C = 80 F (warm)
32 C = 90 F (hot)
38 C = 100 F (scorching)
100 C = 212 F (boiling)

Driving:

All US roads have speed limits, without exception.  Violating the speed limit by more than 5-10 miles per hour can result in steep fines, and in some circumstances the revocation of your driving permit as well, so please don’t do it.  If no speed limit is posted on a road in town, assume it is 35 miles per hour.  Most American cars have speedometers with miles per hour and kilometers per hour on the dial, so just make sure you’re looking at the right number when judging your speed. Click here for more information on driving in Georgia.

Queueing:

Americans queue up for just about everything, and the “line” is sacred!  Do not cut ahead of other people in a queue for any reason other than a safety emergency.  “Saving a spot” is usually OK for one or two other people, but not for a larger group, and not if there is limited access to a popular event.  “Waiting your turn” is considered a core value in the United States and people will judge you negatively if you do not follow the rule.

Trekking:

Tallulah Gorge
Hiking trail at Tallulah Gorge

Crossing private property without permission is not allowed in the United States. If you want to take a walk, you must stay on public property such as sidewalks, parks, and public trails.  If you want to go hiking, you need to find a state or national park and stick to the designated trails. DO NOT under any circumstances go hiking or camping in any area that is not public land and specifically designated for that purpose.  If you try to take a “short cut” across private property, you may well find yourself confronted by an angry landowner (who might possibly be armed) and you may be subject to arrest by the police for trespassing.  Which brings us to….

Firearms:

If you see someone carrying a firearm, do not freak out!  North Georgia is one of the country’s best regions for deer hunting, so you can expect to see people with hunting rifles in autumn and you may well hear shots fired in the distance if you are outside the city.  You may also hear people target shooting on private land.  This is normal.  Finally, like most US states, the state of Georgia issues “open carry” permits which allow some citizens to openly carry firearms — the percentage of people who have and use such permits is extremely low, but just be aware that it is legal for some folks to carry firearms in public.

Alcohol:

It is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase, possess, or consume alcoholic beverages in the United States, and it is illegal in Athens for anyone of any age to carry an open container of alcohol in public or in a vehicle on public roads.  These laws are taken very seriously, so do not violate them.

US and Confederate flags:

The American flag is a much beloved icon in the United States, and it tends to be displayed much more frequently than flags of European nations are in Europe.  You may also see displays of the Confederate battle flag, which is currently the topic of some controversy in the US, especially here in the South.  Some see it as an emblem of the slavery era, while others view it merely as a badge of Southern identity or even as an emblem of country music fandom.  Our advice is to stay out of the issue altogether by not displaying images of the Confederate flag or attempting to engage people who display it in conversation about it.

Ignorant questions:

As we mentioned, the United States is very large. We have only two neighboring countries, one of which shares a language and cultural heritage with us, and we are bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  Americans have a reputation for not traveling, but this reputation is largely unwarranted — we do travel, it’s just that we have to travel very great distances to get beyond the US, Canada, and Mexico. And with an entire continent to explore just in these 3 countries, most Americans opt to travel within North America.

Because of this, Americans often are less familiar with European culture than Europeans are with American culture. But Americans are notoriously chatty. We tend to fill quiet moments with “small talk” which can seem odd or even rude and intrusive to some Europeans.  As a result, you might find Americans asking you “ignorant questions”. You may get asked about Hitler and the Second World War, for example, as though it were a current event, or why Germans only drink warm beer.  And many Americans assume that the US is the most advanced country in the world with the greatest amount of liberty and freedom, leading to false assumptions about other parts of the world. If this happens, just roll with it.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, GA
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, GA

Religion:

The United States is the most religious of the industrialized nations. No matter what your faith, you can find a community of like-minded people somewhere around Athens. Clarke County is small, just 313 square kilometers in area, but there are approximately 100 different religious congregations located here, or about one for every 3 square kilometers. This is not unusual in this region of the country, known as the Bible Belt, but it can be surprising to visitors from other countries. So be prepared to see lots of churches, and if you’d like to attend services, just show up and introduce yourself — folks are very friendly and welcoming around here. In fact, don’t be surprised if you get invited to church a few times during your stay here.

THE HABITAT MISSION

Habitat for Humanity is an ecumenical, non-proselytizing Christian ministry with the mission to “put God’s love into action by building homes, communities, and hope.” That means that although Habitat is based on a Christian view of the world, no one who works with us or who we help is asked to hear any religious message or to meet any sort of religious qualifications. Habitat feels that the teachings of the Christian faith direct us to help our neighbors whoever they may be. That is why we build homes, renovate homes, build handicap ramps, and make repairs — to help our neighbors in need.  We’re glad that you’ve decided to stay with us and help us to help others, and we hope you will enjoy your time in our little corner of the world.