Not since I had my last baby 12 years ago have I been this tired. Bone tired. Every fiber of my being tired. And dirty, filthy and sweaty, sweaty with a capital “S,” tired. But for some bizarre reason, I can’t wait to do it all over again.
Last week Noah and I traveled to Grand Rapids, Minn., along with 28 members of his youth group from the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva and several other chaperones to help frame a three-bedroom house for an Itasca County Habitat for Humanity partner family.
As mind-numbingly tiring as it was and as much as I missed my girl Holly – whom I’d never before been away from for so long – I soon found myself jotting notes about things I need to invest in for next year’s trip – including a better airbed (our group was generously hosted by the Grand Rapids Assembly of God church, whose facilities provided us with a very comfortable home away from home), a bandana (for all that sweat!) and a sturdier tool belt. Because, I quickly realized, we really were there to build a house.
And these kids really intended to pull it off. And they did. In fact, after a mere nine hours of work, our group framed and raised four exterior walls. I still can’t believe it. Sarah and Audrey Jonke “rocked” the miter saws – making the house and shed (which the kids, including Noah, a member of the affectionately dubbed “shed crew,” also built) so incredibly square.
Ben Stibal, Rachel Benjamin, David Montgomery, Mary Phillips, Abby Zacker and so many others, capably led by chaperone Steve Justis – who just happens to be a certified shop teacher and is a 10-year veteran of UUSG Habitat trips – laid-out and nailed the cut pieces together. There’s not a slacker among them. As pumped as we all were, though, we knew that the pace wasn’t the point.
“Take your time. It’s not a race,” said Larry Pickeral, project manager for Itasca Habitat, when the hammering began in earnest.
We weren’t just building a house, he reminded us. Indeed. As one of my new favorite young people, Aron Bartozsek, so aptly put it during our youth group’s worship gathering one evening, “This isn’t the only house we’re building.” I do believe he’s right. There is so much yet to learn, beyond cool construction lingo like “cat’s paw,” “cripple” and “short stud,” and how to safely use a nail gun and miter saw. (Oh yes I did!) Indeed, our group is learning how to build community. And not just the one on 6th Street in Grand Rapids.
But this experience wasn’t all work and no play, and not just because of the amazing brownies baked by ladies from area churches who fed us lunch every day at the build site, or the sweet visit from an ice-cream truck one hot afternoon. It was great fun working alongside these young people, who eagerly took Noah and me in and showed us, and each other, the ropes. We, and several others, were newbies, but for a few of the kids, this was their fourth Habitat trip. Pickeral, with great patience and no shortage of good humor, coached us all.
“My favorite day is the day they get here,” Pickeral said of UUSG’s sixth annual visit to Grand Rapids. “My second favorite day is the day they leave,” he quipped, as something that can only be described as “Santa” love was showered on him by the kids. The affection and admiration is clearly mutual. Pickeral describes the hardworking UUSG Habitat group, led by Laura Laughlin, as “the cream of the crop.”
“Everyone looks forward to this week,” volunteered Pickeral’s son, Brandon Pickeral, an Itasca Habitat volunteer. But no one looked forward to this one more than Tena Buesing.
“I never knew the sound of hammering could be so beautiful,” she said Monday morning, as she surveyed the site of so many young people helping her to build her new home.
Buesing, along with her two sons, 14-year-old Jordan and 5-year-old Jase, will eventually, perhaps by Christmas, get to buy and live in this house.
When she motioned to Jordan, who’d been working alongside the other teenagers on the shed crew, to come watch the first wall of his new home go up, a beautiful dragonfly landed right in the middle of one of the studs. A sign of good luck, perhaps?
Later, I noticed that a small dog had wandered into the wood pile.
“Who’s this?” I asked, as I bent down to scoop him up.
“I’ll take that,” Buesing said, as she smiled and returned him to her new next-door neighbor. Seems she knows how to build community, too.
But it’s a steep learning curve. For everyone.
For example, UUSG’er Miss Anna Masini, though not a huge fan of heights, managed, within short order, to zip up and down her ladder, safely wielding the nail gun like a pro. And dear Luci Whiting, who possesses the voice of an angel and serenaded us all week, was the first of several who tackled hand-sawing her “door,” a board in the threshold of a doorway of the newly- framed house.
As tradition dictates, newbies must muster the strength to do this, and then each one is rewarded with the wood he frees from the frame. (Luci, hardly a newbie, didn’t get a chance to do one, last year.) It’s a talisman of sorts, a badge of honor.
I still get chills when I recall Bartozsek’s telling what this experience was like for him, last year. His, autographed by his fellow Habitat-ers, hangs in his bedroom. Noah cut his last Friday. He has yet to decide where his will end up.
It seems there’s much more going on here than mere house-building.
I can still hear the kids encouraging each other.
“You can do this,” they cheered, as they each took their turns and mastered that stubborn saw.
Build community one house at a time? Yes, they can. Yes, we can.
To support the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva’s next Habitat for Humanity project, mail donations to UUSG, P.O. Box 107, Geneva, IL 60134, Attention “Habitat Project.” The program has been going strong for 13 years since it was initiated by church member Hal Schulman.
• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at email@example.com.