From Scarcity to Service: My Journey of Giving Back with Habitat for Humanity

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When I was in my early 20’s, I fantasized about the idea of volunteering for the Peace Corp. There was something tantalizing about traveling abroad to an area I’ve never been, to a culture I didn’t know, to a landscape that was foreign until it was familiar, with people that were unlike me until we saw our similarities, for an experience that I would never get anywhere else, helping to support a cause that was bigger than me but that my involvement would make a difference.

Me as a young girl in college.
Serena in college, 17 years old, University of Maryland

I wondered if I had the guts to participate, especially since I had never even left the country; I had barely even visited any other states outside of my tri-state area. Volunteering wasn’t even at the top of my “Activities I Enjoy Doing” list. Growing up to a single mom whose main concern was figuring out how to keep food on the table for her two daughters, spending time working for free wasn’t a luxury that I was able to witness. 

Me at age 4, sister age 7, with Mom.

In fact, it seemed like such a far-fetched idea that, although I had fantasies about joining the Peace Corp after graduating with my Bachelors in Psychology, it didn’t seem like something that would be a great idea for the simple fact that I was just emerging into the world, expected to begin earning money, building a real “adult” life. Galavanting off to a so-called “third world country” to spend months (possibly years?) of my life, earning very little money, seemed more like a pipe dream.

And I’ll admit that it wasn’t purely for altruistic motives. Yes, helping others in another country sounds rewarding, but even more alluring was the idea of traveling, having new experiences, meeting new people, but yes–while involved in a common good cause.

2004, age 26.

I stopped mulling the idea over when I read commentary from other Peace Corp volunteers stripping away the adventurous misconceptions, detailing their often boring down-time and other negative aspects from traveling abroad to unknown areas without modern conveniences. Was this a challenge I was willing to accept the benefits as well as the risks?

I tabled the idea and soon fell into the 9 to 5 grind that many of my other recent graduates had grown accustomed to. I never thought about joining the Peace Corp again. And the word “volunteer” became just as I had known it to be when I was younger: something that you just didn’t do when earning an income, and paying for adulting was just too expensive. I continued to work a variety of jobs, from being a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health, to an Activities Coordinator at the Naval Medical Center, to working with soldiers with traumatic brain injury, to a project manager as a government contractor. 

On vacation with a fellow coworker, age 25.

All the while, I began to take my love of journaling and creating online, coupled with my love of paint and thrift stores, to turn my ugly 1970’s house into a home on a budget. Thus, Thrift Diving was born in 2012, including my YouTube channel. I loved do-it-yourself projects, from painting furniture from the thrift store, to later learning how to use tools, and more! I continued to do these projects after hours, while working 9 to 5 outside of the home, raising 3 sons, and being a wife. It was a lot of juggle, and sleep was elusive.

The 1973 home we bought in 2010.


It was in 2015 that I was fired from my “day job” and I decided to take Thrift Diving full-time, growing it into a successful, rewarding, supportive career. But over all those years, not once did I consider revisiting this idea of “volunteering.” For me, it was all about making money to support my family.

However, it wasn’t until 2018 or 2019 that the word “volunteer” had been thrown at me and created a spark so intense that I had to explore it. I was in my first year of Carpentry classes at my local community college at the ripe age of 41, among a classroom full of boys young enough to be my son.

In carpentry class, learning framing.

I had gone back to school to learn more about construction, framing, and to become more formally trained. One fellow named Willy (of even more “advanced age” who was talking classes to nurture his love of construction and learning how to do projects in his own house), said to me one day:

“Serena, you should consider volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.”

Do you ever have those moments when you hear something that makes your entire gut scream, “Yes!!!!”?

Well, this was that moment for me. His suggestion resounded so loudly in me because I loved the idea of working on a job-site, building homes, getting my hands dirty, and learning more about construction in a safe, supportive environment. I didn’t know much about Habitat and their mission, but I knew that it would afford me the ability to apply what I was learning in the classroom to the outside world.

Serena Appiah using circular saw cutting OSB

Again, maybe not completely altruistic because I had something to gain, but I knew that it was the right decision and that I must follow through to at least get some information about it.

Not only did I get information, but I showed up to do the required volunteer training session prior to being assigned to a job site. Then I walked onto a job site, to the open studs of a home under construction, with construction managers to guide me into the volunteer tasks I would be responsible for that day. In fact, we were putting up OSB onto the framing of a house, which would be the future home to a low-income family.

The temps were soaring that day! Myself and other volunteers sweated through our clothes as we climbed on ladders, held large sheets of sheathing to the studs, trying to keep everything lined up properly, screwing them into place. Some volunteers felt on the verge of heat stroke and needed to sit out for a bit. Even with the scorching temperatures, I felt giddy from excitement.

This is what I had been wanting! Working on a team, with a common goal, surrounded with new faces and new stories of how we all converged to this one place on this particular date, to build a home for a family we didn’t know, for a company in which we weren’t employed, for a “payday” that was beyond monetary.

I walked away that day feeling like I had just embarked on an adventure! I felt full. Satisfied. Part of a community. I felt more knowledgable. I was entrenched in a job site–a place I had come to adore, learning about all of its systems, and how all the parts fit together to build a real house that would become someone’s oasis, their forever home.

Because of my experience with building and construction, both due to Thrift Diving and my carpentry training, Habitat immediately asked me to become one of their Crew Leaders! As a Crew Leader, I am able to help lead other volunteers that walk onto the job site, sometimes those who have absolutely no construction or tools experience at all. It’s an honor that they wanted me to be a part of filling that role!

And even greater, I began to learn about the actual program behind Habitat for Humanity and how they supply low-income first-time homebuyers with the opportunity to purchase a safe, beautiful home at zero percent interest. These are families that are often in dangerous or cramped living conditions. Imagine a family of 6 living in a two-bedroom. Scenarios like that aren’t uncommon for families that apply to purchase a Habitat for Humanity home.

What was even more amazing to learn is that the families that purchase a Habitat home are required to put in “sweat equity” hours towards their home, which means they actively have to either come on the job site and help work on their home, or (if they’re not able to physically help), volunteer at a Habitat ReStore. 

And it doesn’t stop there.

These families are also given homeowner education so that they not only make better financial decisions after they move into their home, but they also receive home maintenance education so that once they move in, they know how to care for and maintain their own home!

Let me tell you how monumental that really is–

When we moved into our 1973 home back in 2010, I was terrified. What if something breaks? How will we fix it? How will I know if we are being taken for a ride by unscrupulous contractors? What home maintenance is most important? What do we do and when? How do we do it?

Removing wallpaper in the dining room when we first moved in!

I walked around for 2 months with a ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, fearful that something was going to blow up. Oh–and we had our share of mishaps, for sure. We also go swindled out of at least $1,000 within the first few months because I bought into products I thought would resolve our musty basement. (By the way, it wasn’t until years later that I had the skills and the guts to even tackle removing the mold that was growing in our basement where water was coming in. (You can watch me fix the problem on my YouTube channel)

Buying a home was scary. Decorating a home was scary (and expensive!). These are reasons that I started Thrift Diving in 2012, to share with you the things I learned about decorating, improving, and maintaining my home myself (and how to become comfortable dealing with your home so as not to get taken for a ride by contractors).

So knowing that Habitat for Humanity supports these new homeowners on all the multitudes of homeownership, I was sold as a supporter of their mission since they aligned so well with my own mission here at Thrift Diving. 

It’s been about 4 years or so that I have been volunteering with Habitat. It’s been my goal to volunteer as a Crew Leader on the job site at least once a month, but when life gets in the way, that time gets severely limited. What’s been great is that they’ve had other events come up in which I have been able to participate!

For example, back in the Fall, Habitat invited me to participate in their Fall Festival, where they allowed me to set up a booth in front of their local ReStore. Other members of the community with businesses aligned to Habitat’s goals and vision were also invited, including an eco paint company, and more. I decided to take an old piece of thrifted furniture to paint and paint it there on-site, answering any questions from store patrons about how to paint furniture.

This desk had been sitting in the garage for a solid 2 years or more! I had bought it originally to use for a painting class, but never got around to that class. This was such a perfect piece! (Not to mention, my garage was one piece lighter!!).

Thrifted desk before paint.

The goal was to get it done within the allotted time of the festival, and then donate it at the end of the day so the ReStore could sell it and pocket the proceeds!

Now…if you’ve ever painted furniture, you know that it takes time: you’ve got to clean it….remove the handles…make any repairs with wood filler…let the wood filler dry…sand down the wood filler…add two coats…paint or replace the handles, and you’re done. (Not to mention, allowing it to dry in between coats). I knew I had enough hours to get the desk done, but what I didn’t anticipate was all the time I’d spend talking to people walking by!

People that had interesting stories about their own DIY projects…people who wanted to paint their kitchen cabinets but weren’t sure what paint to use…people such as a firefighter who was there with his fellow firefighters who had never in his life painted furniture, but was willing to give it a try for the very first time!

Firefighter painting furniture

It sparked interesting conversations. For example, I asked the group of firefighters what it was like being a firefighter and what advice they would give to homeowners about the importance of fire safety (to which they said to keep your bedroom doors closed because in their experience, rooms with doors open get demolished by smoke and fire, whereas rooms with doors closed suffer less damage and gives them time to get to you to save your life!).

It was fascinating listening to new, interesting people who stopped by my booth. It make me happy

As the day was winding down, I rushed to get the desk completed so that I could leave it at Habitat for donation.

I was using Beyond Paint Nantucket color, which is my favorite! It’s got the softest blue-gray hue that I have used for many projects in my home, including my china cabinet makeover. I knew that it would be a winner for the desk since it was a color that most people loved, too.

With minutes to spare before everyone packed up for the day, I was able to knock out the second coat of furniture paint, including spray painting the existing hardware gold (since reusing it kept costs low). I didn’t think I was going to make it in time!! I couldn’t donate a mostly-finished piece of furniture. And I surely wasn’t lugging that baby home to finish it there and then lugging it all the way back. Nope. Wasn’t going to happen. 🙂

Thrifted Desk Makeover - Serena standing next to painted desk.

I left that day feeling so fulfilled. It made me take notice that I really, really enjoy connecting with people and talking about DIY, answering their questions, learning about how they got started in DIY, or fielding a question from them about how they can affordably do a project in their own home and save hundreds or thousands of dollars. I decided that I would get involved more often in community events that allowed me to share my love of DIY, and do more volunteer work for Habitat. We even talked about doing furniture painting classes for some of the Habitat homeowners, to help them learn how to decorate their new homes on a budget, using furniture they find at the ReStore! How exciting is that?!

A couple weeks later, I got some exciting news! The woman organizing and hosting the Fall Festival sent me this picture in my Instagram DMs, informing me that the pretty little desk I painted and donated to them, was being sold and carted away as she messaged me! I was so eager to find out how much they were able to sell it for. She told me that it sold for a whopping $175!

Thrifted Desk Makeover - Beyond Paint Nantucket Desk Donated to ReStore - Thrift Diving

Last year I did a podcast interview with Jeff Dee, the President and CEO of Habitat Metro Maryland in my area, where I learned that in 2022, my local Habitat raised over $400K combined between their two area ReStores, which helps to fund their home builds for the year. Just knowing that my afternoon of fun, painting, educating, and connecting with people while I painted that desk added $175 into their pot of money to fuel, felt like a gigantic win!

One thing I have learned the older I get is that the things that speak to your heart today are the things that were there yesterday…and the day before…and the day before…as far back as your childhood. They’re a part of who you were meant to be, even if you weren’t listening. Even if you didn’t act on them. The clues and nudges were there. And those callings, those purposes, will continue to nudge and the universe will continue to conspire to make them come true.

Sometimes there are things you’re actively pursuing. Sometimes they’re things you have long forgotten were desires inside of you. And sometimes they’re things working against you for one reason or another, causing you to lose site of your purpose. But I’m going to invite you to stop for a moment and think about what those desires and purposes are for you.

For me, volunteering, connecting, teaching, inspiring, building, creating, writing…These are all things that were inside of me from my beginning.

And I am so glad that I decided to listen. 


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  1. Clicked on your “Keep me on the list” button and it brought me to this page. My email is set to not send a “read” response when I read my emails. Doesn’t mean I don’t read them. As you can see, I do. Love the color of your desk makeover. Also love that you donate your time and resources to the Habitat for Humanity organization. By doing this you also set a good example for your children to do good for others while they are still young.

    1. Hey Missy!! No worries, I definitely will be keeping your email on my “safe list”! 🙂 Thank you for your sweet comment. I only hope that my children are watching and seeing what I’m doing. They tend to look at what I do, in general, and think it’s what “boomers” do, but I hope that they’ll remember all these “cringey” thing that I do and will later remember and be inspired by them. Some day!!! 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting!!!

  2. Great story! I think you are so very right that there are strong indications of our passions and talents in childhood. One of my favorite books to check out from the library as a child was a room decorating book for kids, I loved crafting, and even imagined turning our cellar or bins in the old barn into a playhouse. I wasn’t allowed to wear flip flops because they were bad for my flat feet, so I actually tried making some out of cardboard, fabric, and glue! (Obviously wouldn’t have lasted long, but they looked cute!). Now I love to decorate, collect vintage decor, thrift for furniture, and do crafts. Your desk is so cute and unique! I have a desk that has been sitting in our barn for several years and this needs to be the year I do something with it! I think Habitat for Humanity is a great organization, and I love learning that they teach people how to manage their finances and take care of their homes. I haven’t volunteered there yet, but when we have larger household items to donate, I try to take them there to help their cause. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Hi Vicki! Oh wow, what a great story about making cardboard flip-flops as a kid!!! LOL. It’s true that what we love, we loved it from such an early age and it’s evident as we grow and age. We never really let go of those loves. When I was a kid, I used to love writing in notebooks in what APPEARED to be “cursive,” but at age 5, it was just a bunch of neat squiggles across lined notebooks–pages and pages of it, as if I were journaling. And who would have known that all these years later, over 40 years (!), I would still love writing just as much. So amazing that we know who we are when we’re young. If only the parents and teachers would nurture those things. Imagine our potential!!! Thank you so much for commenting!

  3. Leona Wolf Child says:

    I love all what you do, sharing your knowledge about creating beauty into furniture that was neglected. I always look forward to all your posts. Keep up the excellent work you do.

    1. Awww, thank you so much, Leona!! I really appreciate that positive feedback. Makes me smile! Thanks for taking time out of your day to have commented on my post!

  4. Martha Washington-Smith says:

    You are my She-ro!!!

  5. Debbie Toft says:

    Hi Serena!
    I love your emails and podcasts, you are so inspiring! Thank you for everything you do to help others and habitat for humanity was always one of my goals.
    A few years ago, during Covid I painted my curio cabinet with the light blue you did with your desk, btw. . . Your desk is absolutely gorgeous.
    I appreciate you and love checking in with you every month!

    1. Aww, Debbie, thank you so much!! You know, it’s so nice to hear that there are people like you that enjoy hearing from me. I get so busy with things sometimes (some of which aren’t even blog-related) that pull my away, and I always worry about people forgetting that I’m here. But then I get nice reminders from people like you who are so supportive when I “come back.” It gives me a renewed appreciation for this amazing connection we have through out love of words, DIY, and transformations. THANK YOU!!

  6. I love this! Thank you so much for sharing. Volunteering has been such a blessing in my life. It gets my eyes off my problems.

    1. Yes, Kathy!! I am reading a book–well, just finished reading it–called The Happiest Hour. And in the book, the author said that people who volunteer are happier because they don’t feel so “time poor.” Meaning, if you give away a little of your time, you tend to feel like you’ve got more where that came from. But if you’re always rushing around doing your own “selfish” things and focusing on yourself, you tend to feel like you never have enough time. Lesson learned: Give some of your time away. Volunteer. It will make you happier. 🙂 Thank you for commenting!

  7. Renee Smith says:

    I love your stories & you are amazing! You inspired me to do many of my DIY projects. Thank you for all you do, Serena!

  8. Thanks for sharing your story Serena. It was very inspirational!

  9. Terri Allums says:

    Hi Serena! I volunteered for Habitat For Humanity 3 years ago. My mom needed critical work done on her home and she was approved for much needed repairs. Me and my sisters helped with painting a home. On my mother’s house we painted and helped put down new flooring. It was all a very rewarding experience.

    1. Terri, what a great experience! That is one program that I love that they do, too: making repairs for people (especially seniors) that need them done. We know how expensive these things can be. Glad to know that you were able to help! I’m sure your mom was sooo thankful and had a huge weight lifted off her shoulders!

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