No job, but plenty of work

Unemployed volunteer Rae Hunter of Mount Pleasant works atop a Charleston Habitat for Humanity house under construction in North Charleston.

A wet saw, a hammer and an arsenal of drills.

These were foreign tools to Rae Hunter a year ago, when she was ferrying promotional sales material from doctors' office to doctors' office for a major pharmaceutical company.

But after Hunter, 47, of Mount Pleasant, was laid off in February, she realized she had a chance to take a break from her career and do something to better the community. Now, she helps build homes through Habitat for Humanity twice a week, and those tools have become familiar items.

"We drill into the cement, and I've sawed metal," she said proudly, with a hint of lingering disbelief. "Doing hard labor, it's actually very releasing. Hammering those nails gets rid of the tension."

Hunter isn't the only recently unemployed worker who decided to put her new free time toward a charitable cause.

Nationally, 37 percent of nonprofit agencies reported an increase in volunteers, according to the Corporation for National Community Service. And at Trident United Way's North Charleston office, volunteer coordinators have seen a 21 percent increase in phone calls from residents who want to start volunteering.

"Research shows that staying involved is a great way to keep your skills honed and that whole networking piece is built into volunteering," said Sally Burnett, a community volunteer coordinator for Trident United Way. "Or just that socializing or feeling of purpose, and the benefit is that great things get done in the community."

Burnett also has seen volunteer interest pick up among business, too. So far, an additional 23 local companies have signed up to participate in this year's Day of Caring event in September, compared to last year's tally.

During last year's nationwide event, the Charleston group brought together the largest number of volunteers among participating chapters.

Not everyone who's lost a job can afford to take on unpaid work, but some have figured out how to make it work.

Hunter, for example, is looking for another job, but she found that few companies are hiring. Her well-paying severance package covers her bills and mortgage payments, allowing her time to execute a thorough job search.

She admits she's enjoyed the time off from her career.

"All my life, I've never had a break. I've never had this type of forced unemployment," she said. "I felt like I needed to be doing something and not focusing on me."

Reach Katy Stech at kstech@postandcourier.com or 937-5549.