Young Rotarian quits job, makes service his life
After gutting flooded homes in Cedar Rapids, Kerr helps reframe damaged walls.
A ndrew Kerr came out of high school primed for success.
He took a job in real estate lending, and by the time he was 20, he had bought a house near his hometown of Cary, North Carolina, USA, furnished it with a big-screen TV, and parked a nice car in the driveway.
“I read a book that suggested joining a service club for networking opportunities,” he says. “So I went online and checked out Lions Clubs, Kiwanis, and Rotary – which seemed the coolest to me because of its commitment to community service and national networking.”
Within months of joining the Rotary Club of Research Triangle Park, Kerr had organized a 5K race. Although he’d become a Rotarian for the networking, that project helped him focus his interest in service. “I worked long hours for six months under a lot of stress, but it gave me something that was missing in my life and got me thinking that I might want to do this kind of thing for a living, although I didn’t know how,” he says. He continued to volunteer for club projects, and after two years, at 24 years old, he became his club’s youngest president.
By 2008, Kerr was a lending manager at a large real estate agency, but the business climate and his spirit for the work had begun to wane. Then something he read online fed into his growing affinity for community service. “The idea was volunteer vacations. I like traveling, and through Rotary I was getting into volunteering, and the two together seemed really cool,” he says.
At the end of June that year, he and a friend drove to Iowa after record-breaking floods hit the region. They spent a week tearing down and clearing out ruined houses with a nonprofit called Hands On Disaster Response. “One day, 22 members from the Rotary Club of Cedar Rapids West showed up,” he says. “We dug through a nasty, muddy, gross-smelling basement, everybody pitching in, becoming friends, helping the community. And I remember one woman who said, ‘If you hadn’t volunteered, I would have lost the house that I inherited from my mother, which has been in our family for 45 years.’”
Four days after he got home, Kerr asked for another week’s vacation and returned to Iowa. His mind was made up. “I drove home, quit my job, stored my stuff at my parents’ house, and bought a plane ticket back to Cedar Rapids,” he says. Over the next four months, along with doing physical work, he raised money through Rotary clubs and recruited volunteers so successfully that when David Campbell, the executive director of Hands On, showed up for the project’s completion in October, he offered Kerr a full-time job.
Through the organization, Kerr has responded to flooding in New York State, tornadoes in Arkansas and Missouri, and earthquakes in Sumatra, Indonesia. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” he says. “But it’s fun too. You’re out there with volunteers from around the world, living, eating, working with them for 24 hours a day, and you bond quickly with them and with the communities you’re working in. It’s a great feeling.”
As development coordinator, Kerr’s duties include fundraising, grant writing, public speaking, and supporting staff in the field. Since January, he’s spent several months in Haiti, where Hands On has two full-time employees and a base that houses 100 volunteers. “We do rubble removal – a lot of it has to be removed by hand, so you can salvage as much as possible,” he says. “There’s a field hospital where we built shelves for the supplies that volunteers bring in; we categorize everything and provide runners when doctors or nurses need something. We try to find where the gaps are and fill them in.”
Kerr, who’s now 28, has spoken to more than 60 Rotary clubs about fundraising, promoting volunteerism, and attracting younger members. Rotarians have responded by donating their money and time to Hands On projects. As for Kerr, he doesn’t see himself turning back.
“It takes a little getting used to, living in a bunk space, just taking along what you need, but you find out you don’t need a big wardrobe or a fancy car,” he says. “It’s been crazy. It’s a really cool adventure; I absolutely love it. I travel all over the United States, all over the world. It’s a dream come true that I don’t think would have ever happened if I hadn’t joined Rotary at 22 years old.”
Learn more about Hands On Disaster Response.