ABCs of building
College students spend spring break volunteering with Habitat
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
Armed with hammers, nail guns, measuring tape and circular saws, volunteers converged at a gray concrete slab in Hartselle. They measured and cut studs for the living room, where the family will gather. They installed the trusses for the roof, which will protect the family. They nailed up plywood to line the kitchen, where the family will share meals.
They built a home.
“What these students from Western Kentucky are doing for us is beyond description. We depend on them. Our families depend on them,” said Jenny Denton, volunteer and construction coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County. “They not only are learning how to build and measure things, they are learning how to give back to the community.”
Those lessons began Monday when a 10-member team from Western Kentucky University arrived at 406 Homeplace in Hartselle, the site of Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County’s 92nd build.
The students learned how to build a house frame, lay out rooms and secure plywood. Most importantly, they learned about the homeowner and her nephew, who uses a wheelchair and needs a ventilator to breathe, and how they currently live in a non-handicap–accessible apartment and struggle with flooding and mold.
“The motto for Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge is ‘One week can change a life forever,’” said Brian Reaka, faculty adviser for Western Kentucky’s Habitat for Humanity chapter. “A lot of students come here with the attitude that they’re going to change the life of the homeowner, which is absolutely true, but the real life that is changed is their own life.
“No one goes back the same person after this experience.”
Started in 1998, Habitat for Humanity International’s Collegiate Challenge asks students to forgo the typical spring break leisure trip for a week of service. Eight students from Western Kentucky, representing a mix of sociology, engineering, religion and journalism majors, responded to this year’s challenge.
“Volunteer work is something I really enjoy, specifically volunteering with Habitat,” said Alex Miller, a sophomore mechanical engineering major. “It gives me the opportunity to work with my hands and give back to people. It’s a feeling like no other.”
For Riley Greif, a junior broadcasting major, the build marked her first Habitat for Humanity experience.
“I didn’t decide to do this until the very last minute. I was a little nervous because I went in thinking I’m not really qualified,” Greif said. “I’m so glad I came. Everyone is super friendly and helpful.”
Every night the group, which spent the past Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the building site and Thursday at the Habitat ReStore, gathered for reflection.
“It’s a way to process what we are doing as well as understand that with the privilege of getting a college degree comes a responsibility to the community because not everyone in the community has the opportunity these students have,” Reaka said.
Along with Reaka, Miller and Greif, the team included Michaela Guice, Ivy Kadisak, Keilen Frazer, Mia Sword, Kathleen Johnson, Emerson Wells and Kayla Austin.
Habitat expects construction of the home to be complete in June. Volunteers, Denton said, are still needed.
Originally a team from Harvard University planned to travel to Decatur for the 16th time to participate in the Habitat build. In response to the coronavirus, however, Harvard suspended school-related trips. Instead, building science students at Career Academies of Decatur will assist with the build.
Individuals interested in volunteering can visit morganhabitat.org/calendar to find out when construction will take place, how many volunteers are needed and what tasks will be done that day.
“We typically build four houses a year – two in the spring and two in the fall – but because of the lack of finances, we are doing one in the spring and, hopefully, two in the fall,” Denton said. “We need to raise these funds because we have a line of families who need homes.”