Growing up in Pennsylvania coal country, Viacom’s Joe Gushen worked a lot with his hands. His father was a property developer, and Gushen’s childhood memories include painting “Tonka” on the back of his dad’s dump truck. As a teenager, he ripped wiring out of old apartments and helped build new ones.
When Gushen launched his career at Viacom out of Kutztown University eight years ago, he largely left this sort of manual labor behind, though he missed it as he moved from MTV.com to Comedy Central to his current role as director of multiplatform programming at Nick.
A couple of springs ago, Gushen briefly relived this sweating, physical past when he road-tripped from New York to Swannanoa, a small town outside of Asheville, N.C. to join a Habitat for Humanity build through Viacom’s Give and Take, which refunds five vacation days for a week spent volunteering through the program.
“I wanted to put my building skills to use and help people in need,” Gushen said. “It was great that Viacom didn’t mind putting resources into what will ultimately help others even if it doesn’t directly benefit the company.”
Set in a valley among rolling mountains, the small neighborhood of two- and three-bedroom homes that Gushen and his fellow volunteers helped build will house several families. The construction crew – a diverse crowd that included college professors, a cab driver and his daughter from New York, and a man seeking meaningful work after the death of his wife – labored alongside the home’s future occupants, who were required to contribute labor as part of their deal with Habitat.
“It was a humbling and amazing experience to meet the core group of volunteers,” Gushen said. “Some of them had traveled across the globe doing these builds, helping all races and walks of life have the basic human right of housing. These are people who want to put their own time and energy into helping people they don’t even know. I was struck by the care they all had – everyone was focused on quality, building these houses as though they were their own home.”
Gushen’s craving for physical work was certainly satisfied. Each day that week, the team labored in the open spring sunshine until early evening. Habitat relies primarily on old-fashioned tools, favoring hammers over nail guns, for example. Every day was different: unloading pallets of shingles from a crane onto a rooftop, laying sod, nailing down flooring, hanging cabinets and working with stucco were all on the task list.
The volunteer effort had the side benefit of satisfying a few of Gushen’s other passions, including a love of travel. A self-described music nerd, Gushen, who plays in a Brooklyn-based experimental rock band called Dr. Zizmor, was able to visit the Moog Synthesizer factory and catch live music in the city’s busy downtown.
The greatest reward, however, was the build itself. It provided Gushen an outlet to continue a lifelong commitment to community service, a staple in his life from the times he would help his grandmother run bingo games as a child to his volunteer role each year at the Kutztown Special Olympics. “I would encourage anyone at Viacom to sign up for a build like this if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty,” he says. “I got a genuine feeling of accomplishment when I got to see the faces of the families who’d be living in a home I helped build with my own hands.”