From the Ground Up

Story by Montana Jones/photos by Graham Davies—originally published in Watershed Magazine


As a kid growing up in the Centreton countryside with four brothers, a Presbyterian minister father and mother in education, Meaghan MacDonald imagined she’d probably become a teacher like her mom.

She set off to the University of Guelph for a psychology degree, and discovered a love of history instead. Ironically her parents shared four history degrees between them, then she graduated in 2007 with one as well. “Everybody laughs when they hear I have a history degree, but it taught me how to think, how to formulate thought and express ideas.”

Just 26 years old, the young red-headed Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Northumberland is equally relaxed in her Cobourg office as on one of their construction sites. Though newly appointed, she confidently conveys the facts as well as the essence of the organization with the expert authority of one with long standing experience in their field. She’s articulate, her demeanour professional, but with a laugh fresh and high as a young girls.

Habitat for Humanity is an international non-profit organization working towards a vision where every person has a safe, decent place to live. With a selfless team of staff, volunteers and community partners, they build affordable housing and promote home ownership as a means to breaking the cycle of economic disadvantage.

Meaghan’s first encounter with Habitat was on the second day of frosh week in first year university. “The girl across the hall said she was going to a Habitat for Humanity build…I had heard of them but didn’t really know much about it, I asked if I could tag along,” she recalls. “We had a blast.”

As it happened, Meaghan’s choir conductor Cathy Lyons was also the Executive Director for the Northumberland affiliate of Habitat. She ended up volunteering on build sites and in the office, and the following summer was hired as an intern. By the time Meaghan left university she knew what she wanted to do. Enroute to her most recent role with Habitat she’s dedicated herself over time as their recruiter, trainer, coordinator and manager—quite literally working from the ground up.

Meaghan’s childhood notion of becoming a teacher was an accurate assumption after all…her days are spent teaching how to build. Not just houses, but community. She teaches people faith, how to care, how to empower themselves and each other. “Habitat is all about support, it’s not at all charity. In history I studied much of the 18th and 19th century London philanthropy and realized the individual was not considered, the goal was the outcome for society.”

“A hand up is not a shameful thing—it’s a really powerful thing, a really incredible tool. I’m really impressed by the courage it takes. It’s not easy to ask for help, and our families all took that step and realized that in order to better their situation they needed a bit of help. Habitat is saying you want it? We’ll help you.”

Meaghan loves watching how Habitat benefits every person involved. “It builds people up. Not just the family whose houses are being built, but the extended family, the kids, their friends and every volunteer that put a nail in or a piece of flooring down. Getting a chance to come out and swing a hammer with twelve strangers every day really gives people that connection back into community. Even if they don’t have much in common, it brings them together.”

Meaghan has added another chore to her growing list of responsibilities. “I sweep the floor every day, because now it’s my floor,” she grins. The unspoken task is her contribution to sweeping change for so many in Northumberland. In the face of working 12 hour stretches, she says “Ultimately at the end of the day, what keeps you going is knowing how many lives have been changed when those keys are handed over.”

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