Grace Lee recently led a group of MIT volunteers to Bogalusa, Louisiana to build a house for a family whose home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. For days, they hammered nails, laid a tile floor, installed cabinets, painted walls, and planted flowers in the front yard.
“When the owner of the house was presented with the keys, she hugged us, thanked us, and began to cry,” Lee says. “It was such an emotional experience. A feeling of support and goodwill permeated the entire construction site, and it just felt wonderful.”
Lee is president of Habitat for Humanity’s MIT chapter, which now has 400 members. Volunteering to build houses for the homeless, she says, “not only gives life balance, but gives life meaning.”
The 21-year-old senior, who plans to go to medical school, got involved in the project three years ago because her life felt out of balance. “Being in the lab all day just didn’t work for me,” Lee says, so she decided to volunteer. “Now, I get to spend the day outdoors and do physical work, which is so underrated. You come back tired, but you feel accomplished. It’s incredible what a group of students can do in one day,” she says, adding that one Saturday students insulated a whole farmhouse.
The daughter of engineers, Lee was raised in Rockville, Maryland to help and give. Growing up, she participated in bake sales, car washes, and river cleanups. Now, she is involved in a tutoring program in Cambridge and is also planning a 5K race at MIT to raise money for materials to build a Habitat for Humanity house in Kenya.
Lee says that building houses is a chance for MIT students not only to give of their time, but of their talents. “So many MIT students have expertise in building “green.” MIT is different from other schools, because we really use our knowledge in the public service we perform.”
Lee, who has helped to build houses across Boston and in Florida, says: “It’s something I look forward to and love. I’ve realized how selfless some people are. When I was so wrapped up in my classes and research, I didn’t notice. I’ve learned that people are giving and want to help others in need. It definitely has reaffirmed my belief in humanity.”