When I learned that a group of Illinois tradesmen saved a local food pantry more than a hundred thousand dollars by donating their time and labor to building a new facility, I needed to talk with these men. Yes, men—more than one-hundred men (and one woman) volunteered in the construction of the new food pantry; (I know because I asked how many of the workers were male.) Why, I wondered, had they decided—of all the ways they could have spent their energies—to work on the food pantry for free?
I interviewed several tradesmen in the last week of the pantry’s construction. The men hammered, wired, and plumbed while we talked. Themes arose in their answers, giving me insights into what inspires men to work together for a noble cause.
Unemployment and under-employment lurked within most of the men’s responses. Because housing construction work has all but vanished in Illinois, some of the carpenters, electricians, and plumbers I met had not had steady employment in as many as three years.
I inquired, after spending a few minutes on the more uplifting subject of building the pantry, what unemployment felt like for them. One man, a father of eight, acknowledged that unemployment “eats up your savings, puts a strain on marriages.” Another man choked up a bit and said it made him feel “kind of worthless.” Yet another reported: “It hurts your mind … your pride.”
Yet here were these men in strained marriages, whose savings had withered, and who felt pride-hurt and worthless using their time and energy to help the less fortunate. I asked them to tell me why.
Craig Tronjeau, a red-bearded electrician and former Peace Corps volunteer, said: “It’s nice to see a completed project.” All seven men with whom I spoke referred to their desire to see a finished product, and to feel the satisfaction of making the pantry “look good.” With paying jobs so scarce, working on the pantry afforded them the psychic reward of seeing a project through.
Steven Palmer, a soft-spoken carpenter who worked on the pantry fifty hours a week for six months said: “This helps meet the needs of our community.” It is hard to believe, from driving the streets of this affluent-looking suburb, that the people living inside the pretty and sometimes grand homes here would need free food and yet the directors of the pantry both told me need has gone up dramatically the last few years—that they serve eighty or so families per week and that many of those seeking assistance are people who, until recently, had well-paying jobs. Several volunteers noted that their fellow out-of-work tradesmen would likely benefit directly from the work they did on the food pantry.
Nicholas Jansen, a young plumber with a quick smile answered my question of why he was there with this wisdom: “Whatever you can do to help others … ease the stresses of others, it picks you up.” All the workmen I encountered at the pantry expressed feeling a surge in self-worth from their charitable work. Wallace Voce, a carpenter and single father summed it up well when he said: “We’re doing this for spiritual wealth.”
We are, so many of us—but especially men, redefining success within the painful experience of long-term unemployment; helping ease the stresses of others and striving for spiritual wealth—and let us make that part of the new definition.