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Q&A with Drexel Junior Umar Hafeez

November 14, 2012

Umar Hafeez
Above and beyond.

Drexel junior Umar Hafeez has become quite good at it. And others have taken notice.

The biology major—with a pre-med concentration and a culinary science minor—was recently presented with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia’s (RTP) Outstanding Leadership Award. RTP is an organization that works to bring volunteers and communities together to improve the homes of low-income homeowners in need. Hafeez was presented the award for his dedication to RTP’s efforts. He was involved in everything from raising funds to leading projects to organizing alternative spring break trips.

After receiving the Outstanding Leadership Award, Hafeez sat down with the DrexelNow to talk about his experiences working with RTP.

How did you become involved in Rebuilding Together Philadelphia (RTP)?

During my freshman year at Drexel, I joined Circle K, a student organization dedicated to volunteer work. Soon after, I was introduced to Drexel’s Community Scholars program, where student leaders act as liaisons to the community. As a Community Scholar, I had the opportunity to interview with the Lindy Center and I selected to work with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia (RTP), a program that renovates homes in the Philadelphia area to keep residents “warm, safe and dry.” RTP really caught my eye and seemed interesting. Growing up, my father encouraged self-sufficiency—a lot of which involved fixing up problems around the house on our own. I chose RTP because, in a way, it reminded me of this past.

What are some of the projects/fundraisers you organized with RTP?

When I first started, I spent a lot of time getting acquainted and trying to prove myself to the executive director. They get volunteers all the time and I really wanted to show them the value of having a Drexel Community Scholar. I introduced new ideas for sustainability and tried to utilize the many resources the University has at its disposal. I wanted to use those resources to connect to the community and make a difference.

We did many “block builds,” which are neighborhood renovations. The renovations are aimed at making homes safe and livable. Every year, RTP does a huge project at the end of the year—this year they renovated more than 30 homes in Overbrook. It was absolutely amazing.

RTP also works to make homes energy efficient which, on average, saves a homeowner roughly $13 to $20 a month. To us it may not seem like a lot, but it makes a huge impact to someone who has to choose between buying groceries and paying the electric bill.

I also worked with RTP to construct planter boxes for the renovated homes. RTP received a grant from the city to create planter boxes designed to slow down the flow of rain into the sewer system. The boxes also divert water away from the homes, which is important in houses where basements are poorly designed and flooding is a huge issue.

Another project I worked on was to design an alternative spring break trip for students. I knew I wanted to get students interested in helping the community and working with RTP so I approached Circle K about pairing up with RTP. A local church agreed to host our trip mates and we stayed there each night and took public transportation to the build sites in Mantua. We did something different every day. We built and installed planter boxes, installed drywall and renovated a kitchen.

This past May, I led a core group of Drexel’s RTP volunteers to head a block build in the Mantua/Powelton area. It was a completely student-run project. The students each had a different role to play in making the build a success. Some students acted as liaisons to the homeowners and others acted as house captains, making sure that general volunteers completed the project on time. The whole project was an incredible show of teamwork from campus to community.

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of working with RTP and the Drexel community?

There are so many rewarding parts of working with RTP. But what I enjoy most is interacting with the homeowners and seeing how much this program helps them. One of the most memorable experiences was when a homeowner told me that she never really thought RTP would help her. She felt that so many organizations promised to help but never actually come through. They would tell her that she wasn’t “poor enough.” When RTP actually showed up to work on her roof, she couldn’t believe it, she said. She heard the noise and thought it was a police drug bust, which is something that happens often in her neighborhood. She got ready to run outside and yell that they had the wrong house when a neighbor called her to tell her RTP was working on her roof. She sat on porch and cried because she couldn’t believe they were there to help her.

How do you plan to continue to be a leader in the Drexel community?

Currently, I am president of Drexel’s Circle K and service chair for the Biological Honor Society and the Muslim and Pakistani student associations. I plan to bring the same experiences I had to the other things I am involved in at Drexel. Through my involvement on campus, I want to plan workshops and other events to get the conversation going about the issue of poverty, which is at the core of public issues. It’s important to open up the conversation about these problems going on in our community in order to begin addressing them.

Recently, I approached Lucy Kerman, the vice provost for University and Community Partnerships, about potentially sponsoring a home renovation for $5,000 and she agreed. I find it really refreshing to know that Drexel is willing to help the community. I hope to get Drexel involved in future projects going forward.