Story by Patricia McKnight, Communications Intern (Summer 2019)

Milwaukee Habitat/FIRST Internship Program

In Milwaukee County, like many other places across the country, housing costs have increased while wages have remained stagnant. According to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum in 2018, Milwaukee County’s median income isn’t high enough to cover residents’ median rent expenses. Milwaukee County has the highest percentage of renter households in the Midwest, but only 9% of rental units fall within median affordability.  These striking statistics are why Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity works so hard to combat Milwaukee’s affordable housing crisis by providing families safe, stable and cost-effective housing. Of course, these efforts require skilled and dedicated workers.

This was the impetus for a unique internship program supported by the Argosy Foundation pairing FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics students with Milwaukee Habitat, an effort to provide the organization skilled, stable student workers that could offer increased capacity. Together the partnership between Habitat, FIRST and the Argosy Foundation works to break Milwaukee’s cycle of poverty for low-income families and gives students the opportunity to have professional hands-on experience in construction.

Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976 by Linda and Millard Fuller in order to provide people with ‘simple, decent, and affordable’ housing. Since its creation, Habitat has helped more than 22 million people build new homes or improve the homes they live in. Since its founding in 1984, Milwaukee Habitat has helped over 1,000 families to purchase or repair their home. Milwaukee Habitat’s focus on targeted areas helps revitalize neighborhoods and increases community engagement. Targeted Milwaukee neighborhoods are typically low-income areas with vacant lots and homes in need of critical repairs. Habitat operates by choosing homeowner applicants who, if they are accepted, put in an amount of “sweat-equity” hours by helping build their Habitat home with the staff and volunteers. Habitat also crucially provides home owners with low interest mortgage payments that never exceed 30% of a homeowner’s monthly income, to provide affordable housing.

The three current Habitat/FIRST interns are recent graduates from Riverside University High School and were all members of the school’s FIRST robotics team. FIRST is an organization that aims to inspire youth to become innovators by teaching science, engineering and technological skills. FIRST nurtures students’ interest in science and encourages them to pursue education and careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. While participating in FIRST the students learn engineering, design, programming and development by building their own robot. While working collectively on the goal to build a functioning robot, students develop more in-depth team work and leadership skills. The skills these students learn from the FIRST robotics program make them the perfect candidates to intern with Habitat for Humanity.

“Civil engineering is closely related to construction management, and that’s what I do at Habitat. It’s cool because I get to do what I’m studying in school,”

Habitat/FIRST intern Zorris Bass, a civil engineering major at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, feels his experience has been incredibly beneficial and educational. “Civil engineering is closely related to construction management, and that’s what I do at Habitat. It’s cool because I get to do what I’m studying in school,” Bass said. Habitat gives the interns a wide variety of constructional tasks from installing dry wall and insulation to finishing floors and painting. Experiencing all the different stages of construction gives the interns a wide variety of different skills to learn and improve on.

The internship also provides an opportunity for interns to participate in a Habitat Build Trip where they volunteer at a Habitat office in a different state. For instance, Bass had the opportunity to visit Hattiesburg, Mississippi to help build fences and stabilize the walls of a church that were ruined by a tornado a few months prior. The year before, Bass had the opportunity to visit Beaumont, Texas to help build walls for a new house. These trips, he says, were new and fun experiences. He had never been to these states before and getting to go with Habitat to help people from different communities was an amazing experience.

Habitat Volunteer Services Director, Beth Van Gorp, says the interns have been a great help to the organization on their worksites. “Because of their interest in engineering they have a bent towards technical tasks and have picked up construction easily,” said Van Gorp. Bass says that he and the other interns have completed work on least 50 houses since their internship started in 2017.

The interns’ past leadership skills from FIRST also help Habitat as they are able to lead their own groups of small volunteers. According to Van Gorp, Habitat/FIRST intern Esai Rivera has become an exceptional leader with groups of volunteers. Since the beginning of his internship, Rivera’s leadership has developed and he says feels more confident leading groups. Because of the extra hands and the interns’ ability to lead volunteer groups, homes are able to be built quicker than usual. With houses being completed more quickly, families are able to move in sooner. In addition, with the interns’ help, Habitat can host more Rock the Block events. Rock the Block is a home revitalization event where Habitat volunteers are invited by neighbors go to a specific block and beautify it through activities like minor home repairs, painting, landscaping and trash pick-up.

Ultimately this unique partnership not only allows the interns to develop and showcase their growth as STEM leaders but also creates a lasting positive change in Milwaukee’s communities, families and youth. To hear more about Habitat’s impact in Milwaukee visit: And for additional information on the FIRST program and its impact on future STEM leaders, visit