Humbled by a job loss, James Vargo found joy through volunteerism

Photo: James Vargo and friends volunteering with the Fuller Center Global Builders in Romania in May 2023.

Humbled by a job loss, James Vargo found renewed joy through volunteerism

ST. CHARLES, Illinois — James Vargo thought he had a full life as a busy vice president and general manager of a company in suburban Atlanta in the 1990s. He had no idea how his life was about to change.

I was full of myself,” Vargo recalls. “I had a great career. I was living the dream.”

That was before his company was bought out. Shortly thereafter, he was out of a job.

I was unceremoniously separated from the company,” he says. “I had this busy life, flying around and being important. And now all of the sudden, I was nobody.”

While trying to cope with being a “nobody,” he went looking for a productive way to spend his time. He began volunteering with a local Habitat for Humanity affiliate and soon was invited by the affiliate’s construction manager to join him on an international adventure — as one of 14,000-plus volunteers at the 1999 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Mindanao, The Philippines.

James Vargo (far right) with Millard Fuller and others at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in The Philippines in 1999.

The hook was set, and Vargo was reeled into the world of international service. He has now been volunteering on global service trips for 25 years. His three most recent trips have been with The Fuller Center for Housing’s Global Builders program — to Portugal, Nepal, and last month to Romania. Over the years, he estimates that he has had his hands on 45 to 50 homes through various missions.

Now, he truly is living the dream.

God put me on this path because of losing my job, which I thought was the end of the world,” Vargo says. “I didn’t handle it well for several years. I was crushed. But I really believe to this day that God needed to do this to me. I needed some humility in my life.”

He got more than just some needed humility — he also made friends for life … real friends who have volunteered alongside him and share his passion for helping others.

I realized that the people in my career were not friends — they were nice acquaintances,” he says. “Now I have this network after 25 years of some of the best friends all over the world.”

This Global Builders team raved about their experience last month in Romania.

Vargo was with a nine-person team of familiar faces that worked with The Fuller Center in Cluj, Romania, last month. He has served in multiple countries, but he ranks Romania among the best.

I absolutely loved it,” he says, adding that he was particularly impressed with the attention to safety measures. “The team on the ground was the most gracious I’ve run into in so many years. They went over the top in terms of their care for us. They were so gracious and so much fun — great senses of humor. I’d take a team there anytime.”

Now that he is back on U.S. soil, his attention turns to his efforts with the local Society of St. Vincent de Paul chapter, where he has volunteered for years, including at their thrift store. He has been recruited to lead the local group full-time, but they insist that he continue indulging his passion for international service because they know how important these trips are to him.

If you’ve got a travel bug, it’s great,” Vargo says of international mission trips. “You’ll find that the rest of the world is just full of nice people. Instead of going somewhere and spending a week in a hotel, you get involved with the local people and a family. You’ve got a water buffalo chewing cud while you’re working on a house. You’ve got grandma carrying plants on her back. It just puts you in a whole different atmosphere.”

And he says it reminds him to be grateful for all of his blessings — including a certain humbling job loss that opened up a whole new world to him.

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