News and Events
The "Death" of a Salesman, the Birth of a Humanitarian
In building affordable homes as volunteer coordinator and office manager at Habitat for Humanity, Matthew Gilling (BA '83) has finally found a career in which he feels at home. A former sales consultant to a transportation company, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with a profits-focused career. Now Gilling heads the Ventura County branch of Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organization that uses a volunteer force to build simple, affordable homes for low-income families.
"My wife, Denice, realized I hadn't been happy for a couple of years," Gilling says about his decision to change careers. Gilling was a senior at Pepperdine when he met his future wife, an incoming freshman. The two were friends for the next four years as he traveled the world as a flight attendant, before settling into sales consulting and getting married.
He was in sales for 20 years before realizing he was unhappy. "It was all about saving money, the bottom line, price, price, price," he says. In March 2007, he decided he'd had enough. "The minute I quit my job, even though I was scared and not sure what to do, it felt like a burden was lifted off me."
Gilling started exploring the non-profit sector and, by the following December, he found his true calling: a managerial position at Habitat for Humanity. "The job is about building hope, building houses, and changing peoples lives. It's very positive," he says.
Now the only bottom line Gilling worries about is keeping the volunteer workforce numbers up. Approximately 20 percent of his job entails general office management and 80 percent coordinating volunteer needs, he says. In an office of just five paid staff members, the Ventura Habitat branch relies on volunteer efforts to continue operations. The team is currently finishing three family homes in Simi Valley, each for single mothers with three children, respectively.
Habitat has been working since 1976 to provide simple homes with affordable mortgages, in which the owners' own sweat goes into building. One of Gilling's fondest memories from the past year was of sharing the experience of a "wall raising" with his son, Robert, a junior in high school. "We just get the walls built, and the family we've selected puts in the first nail," Gilling explains. "It's very emotional, and an amazing thing. I brought Robert to see that and I think it sparked something in him."
The biggest difference between his old life and his new, says Gilling, is the personal relationships he is able to build with Habitat's clients, the future homeowners. He is not selling a product - he is changing lives. He is so exhilarated by his new career that he finds himself unwilling to take a break, even for weekends.
"I often wind up working on Saturdays, not because I have to but because I want to," he says, laughing. "I'll go down and see everybody, and I wind up staying and being a part of it."
With the changes in their lives, the Gillings have found themselves reconnecting with Pepperdine. Denice is continuing her education as part of the fully employed MBA program at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. Matt has reestablished ties with the school through the Pepperdine Volunteer Center, which sends students to Ventura's Habitat work sites.
In 2007, construction finished on a Pepperdine-sponsored home built by Habitat in Oxnard. Upon completion, they named it Pierre's Place in honor of Pierre Claeyssens, former Pepperdine Seaver College board member and founder of the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation. Gilling recalls that students put together pictures from each phase of construction into a book and had the crew sign it, as a gift to the receiving family.
"They gave it to me to present to the family," remembers Gilling fondly, summing up what keeps him working weekends. "It was awesome, so touching and heart warming, what they did. The family really appreciated it."
By Sarah Fisher