What I learned from remodeling kitchens with my dad

“Pass me the screws,” my dad said with a power drill in his right hand and a beautifully crafted overhead kitchen cabinet propped up against his left shoulder. I picked up a few screws from the tool bucket on the ground, handed them to my dad, and helped him shoulder the burden of the heavy wooden cabinet. Generally the heavier the cabinet, the better quality it is, and this cabinet was top-of-the-line. The tough edge of the front of the cabinet dug roughly into my thirteen-year-old shoulder, and I pushed it up as hard as I could with my little hands.

The first screw forcefully squealed into the wood backing as it made contact with the stud behind the drywall. Dad placed another screw through the back of the cabinet and another loud squeal attacked our ears. Four squeals later, and the cabinet was securely installed in the corner of this old kitchen. The home itself was probably built in the 1970’s judging by the ochre-tinted appliances and plainly “modern” facades of the light avocado-shaded cabinets.

Every few minutes the owner of the home, a gaunt African-American lady in her 50’s or 60’s, would peak into kitchen to observe our progress. Because she was tall, I could easily feel her presence as she supervised the remodeling project, and her gaze on the back of my head felt like hot nails. As a self-conscious thirteen year old, I tried as much as possible to avoid eye contact with her for fear that she might ask me a question, so whenever she was around, I would turn my back to unbox another big cabinet or to put away scattered tools.

“Go get the second cabinet. The smaller one that goes above the cooking range,” my dad ordered.

Casually I sauntered to the garage to sort through a maze of cardboard boxes and new kitchen cabinets. The summer heat permeated the old garage and heightened the aromatic mixture of finely crafted oak and ripped-apart cardboard. Cabinets that came up to my waist and others that were taller than the reach of my outstretched arms were strewn about in a methodical madness. The mess created a miniature metropolitan skyline. I weaved in and out of the imaginary city streets. Boxes and cabinets were skyscrapers that created thoroughfares and alleyways, and for a moment I pretended I was a messenger delivering an important package to a downtown firm. Zip. Zoom. Dive.

“Huuuyyyy. Nasaan ka? Hey. Where are you?” my dad shrieked.

The daydream faded away and I was back in the overcrowded garage somewhere in Orange County. “What size is it again, dad?” I yelled back.

“The small one about four feet by two feet.”

After sifting through more boxes, I found it on top of what I had imagined was the city’s public library. I snapped the plastic ties off the box, swiftly released the little cabinet from its cardboard and styrofoam confines, and bear-hugged it through Main Street, all the way back to the kitchen.

“Is this it, Dad?”

“Oo, ilagay ito dito. Yes, place it here,” Dad ushered while gesturing at the empty spot next to the first cabinet.

Thud. Cabinet banged against the wall. Squeal. Screws forced in place. Snap-snap. Another one unboxed. Shimmy-shimmy. Cabinet dragged to the kitchen.

After examining the floorplan, I became slightly better at predicting which cabinet my dad would need next. In an attempt at being efficient, I lined them up from the garage to the kitchen, like wooden soldiers getting ready for battle. We repeated the cycle until the bare walls started to look like a kitchen again. Three hours and fifteen installed cabinets later, my dad said, “Pahinga na tayo. Let’s rest.”

I used my t-shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat from my brow, exhaled a sigh of relief, and wished that the lady would turn on the AC in her house. Dad sat down on a step stool, opened a large plastic Coleman container full of water and ice, and took four generous gulps of the cold refreshment. I collapsed myself on top of a bright orange toolbox, and dad passed me the Coleman and a pandesal (lightly sweet Filipino bread roll) with American cheese neatly encased in a plastic sandwich bag. I quenched my thirst desperately and inhaled the little pandesal in two bites. As we ate and rested, the old lady curiously poked her head through the open doorway to inspect our progress. She looked at the half-finished walls and then glanced at my dad. “It looks like it’s coming along really nicely,” she commented with a mischievous smirk, and then she placed her gaze on me, “it looks good. You did a good job.”

Sheepishly and with my eyes fixed on the unfinished cement floor, I replied, “Thank you.”

“So are you going to remodel kitchens too when you grow up? Are you going to follow in your dad’s footsteps?” she asked benignly.

I don’t remember quite how I responded to her, and it really doesn’t matter. I might have given her a half-smile and then looked away, but I distinctly remember what I thought the moment that she asked:



I love my dad and honor him for the rigorous and relentless work ethic that he instilled in me. My brother, sister and I joined him all throughout our childhood years at different jobsites as he worked hard to establish himself and his small business as credible and high quality. I credit my dad for truly living and breathing the entrepreneurial spirit and the American dream, and inspiring me to work hard, challenge myself, and do my best. If it were not for the weekends, school holidays, and the summers that we spent tearing out old houses and creating beautiful masterpieces, I can easily say that I would not have been able to go to college or be an American citizen.

However, I knew it then, and I know it now: my path would lead me down a different direction. And although my thirteen-year-old self was vehemently opposed to following in his dad’s footsteps (because really, what thirteen-year-old would want to do that?), I can see now that I did not veer completely off. Yes, I work and have been working with youth in the educational nonprofit sphere for years, and my passion clearly is to positively change the lives of youth, but everyday I use the lessons I learned from working with my dad to remodel kitchens.

My dad, an architect by trade, taught me how to read blueprints and floor plans, which planted the seeds of my ability to be visionary in my approach to leadership and creativity. I observed how my dad efficiently organized the chaos of a jobsite from the shipping of all of the cabinets to the installation timeline, and I rudimentarily practiced efficiency and systems-building in customers’ homes. He treated his clients jovially, fairly, and assertively, and he was my first model of how to be a leader and an effective negotiator. He built houses that stood on a solid foundation, while I built curricula and programs that stemmed from a solid foundation.

See, although I’m not quite remodeling kitchens, I suppose I can answer that old lady’s question differently now. When I enter into a nonprofit organization, when I engage in a new project, or when I get my hands dirty on a new program, I take the same approach my dad taught me years ago. We took out the old things that were obsolete and unnecessary; we carefully, meticulously, and systematically replaced them with new and better things; we tested the things to make sure they worked; and then we made sure the clients were happy with the new things. You can replace “things” with anything: cabinets, curriculum, culture, core programs, operations, etc. And of course, you can add steps and other systems to fit the needs of the project or team better, but I digress.

If the old lady were here now, I’d tell her, “Yes, I am following in my dad’s footsteps,” and I’d also thank her. Her simple question stuck with me for over fifteen years. Back then I used it as fuel to study smarter, work harder, and achieve more in school so that I could go to college and become successful… So that I wouldn’t have to do manual labor again (let’s be honest, if you give a teenager the choice between manual labor or studying in a comfortable, air-conditioned room, he’d pick the latter). Even though I was not that enthusiastic about giving up weekends and summers to work with my dad and even though the manual labor was exhausting and physically draining, I now realize that my dad’s footsteps did not lead me astray. In fact, they led me to where I am today, and for that I’m extremely grateful.

I love you, Dad. Thank you!

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