Last year Sam Kovach-Orr was struggling as an engineering major and on the verge of dropping out of Rutgers. But his commitment to Habitat for Humanity changed the course of his life.
During his junior year, Kovach-Orr became the president of the campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an international organization that builds affordable housing for families in need of decent shelter. Students involved in the group helped out with different projects in New Jersey on weekends and traveled around the country during breaks to assist other chapters.
Habitat’s work always appealed to Kovach-Orr’s deep sense of social justice. He started to volunteer in high school with his brother. On his first trip, Kovach-Orr helped finish the roof of a house and was inspired by what he could accomplish.
“You were building, but you weren’t just a construction worker on a site, ‘’ said Kovach-Orr, who grew up in Metuchen. “You were doing something good in the world for a family that needed help.’’
He’s traveled to Virginia, Cleveland, Kentucky, Florida and Maryland to assist with construction projects, met several of the families that were being helped and worked on developing a high school program last summer for Habitat through AmeriCorps. Families that meet Habitat’s income requirements pay a zero percent interest mortgage on their house and are required to give 500 hours of their time.
While Kovach-Orr found his work with the club meaningful, he was also struggling with his grades and wasn’t sure if he had chosen the right career path. Then on a whim last November, he drove out to Habitat’s annual youth leadership conference in Indianapolis – where he discovered a new direction for the club and for his himself.
He learned that other campus chapters had taken on fundraising campaigns to pay for the construction of a house and thought: Why not do that at Rutgers? He returned from the trip and convinced students to launch a $100,000 campaign for the Greater Plainfield Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an organization the club worked with before.
“It changed my attitude,’’ Kovach-Orr said. “It was a calling to stay in school and really change the organization.’’
He also believed that he was being sent another message: to leave engineering (he changed his major to philosophy) and enter the seminary after college.
Becoming a pastor was something Kovach-Orr had considered since getting involved with Habitat, an ecumenical Christian organization.
“Doing Habitat started opening my eyes to the real message of most religions,’’ Kovach-Orr said. “The messages that Jesus was trying to convey are genuine and how I thought everyone should really act: not ignoring people in need,’’ Kovach-Orr said.
The fundraising campaign has breathed new life into the campus chapter. The club now holds back-to- back meetings because it can’t fit all its members in a room that can accommodate 50. Last year about 20 students showed up regularly.
“I think the campaign really brought the whole club together,’’ said Punit Arora, who serves on the executive board of the campus chapter.
Last year he knew about a dozen students who volunteered at different building sites.
“Now I can tell you the names of 60 to 70 members because they always come to everything, which is great too,’’ Arora said. “You always want to build a community within a club and this project has gotten us to that point.’’
Students broke ground on the house in Plainfield in October. Work on the house will start in full in the spring. Until then the students are helping the Plainfield chapter with another construction project.
Arora said he was amazed at how Rutgers came together to raise money. The athletics department made arrangements for the club to fundraise at upcoming basketball games. Student-athletes have volunteered to help the Plainfield chapter in December and will return again in the spring. The Barnes & Noble at Rutgers has offered to use the tip jars at the café to collect donations for the club and has offered to be involved in other upcoming activities.
The club has until 2014 to complete the campaign and is nearly halfway to its goal of $50,000 for this school year.
“At first it I thought it would be difficult to find a way to raise this money, but I found out that as a community Rutgers is huge in helping out wherever they can,’’ Arora said. “People are willing to go out of their way for us.’’
The Rev. Jeremy Montgomery, executive director of the Greater Plainfield Habitat for Humanity, said he wasn't surprised when Kovach-Orr contacted him about sponsoring the construction of a house. He knew that Kovach-Orr had a longstanding relationship with Habitat and was confident that the students had the time, talent and creativity to take on the job.
“What the students are accomplishing with this house sponsorship, I wish I could get adults to accomplish,’’ Montgomery said. “The students are tackling something that most professional grown adults don't dare to because they don’t think it’s possible – raising $100,000 in two years to build a house, that is awesome.’’