Good times, good work

I’ve got a song in my head that I didn’t even know a week ago. That’s because I was lucky enough to spend a week with a hard-working but fun-loving group of students on Alternative Spring Break. They blasted the radio and sang along when a favorite song came on as we drove to our work sites, to the YMCA for shower time and to the coffee shop or main street to hang out. Made me feel young again. (We definitely have to give up the American car culture, given climate change, but I’m sure glad I got to enjoy it for so many years.)

We made great headway on two Habitat for Humanity Houses in Athens, Georgia. This group really knows how to work. The days ended with everyone pitching in to cook and clean up, then came games and good conversation.

For years I’ve been writing admiring Web stories and press releases about Suffolk U students who give up the traditional spring break vacation to perform service work. But until I joined them this week, I didn’t realize that foregoing the vacation doesn’t mean giving up the fun — not at all. There was no drinking or carousing on this trip, but a group of students who were, for the most part, strangers two months ago are now fast friends. Thanks for letting me join in the fun!

Who knows, I may now let my own radio dial linger at Usher or Lil Wayne — but I draw the line at Britney!

–Nancy K

Highlighting the issue of Affordable Housing

Working with Habitat for Humanity all week has made us all take a second look at the role of affordable housing in communities. We met Tina, the future owner of the house we roofed. She took time from her work week to thank us for our hard work and to take in the progress made on her house. Tina and her family have been contributing “sweat equity” hours on their house and other Habitat projects as they wait for the first home. 

To gain perspective on the ouscal situation in Athens, GA, our group spoke with Matthew Murphy, the affordable housing administrator for Athens-Clark County. His agency oversees federal funds allocated for affordable housing issues in the county. Recently named the poorest county in the U.S., the county struggles to find housing alternatives  for families that live at or below the poverty line. Our group discussed potential approaches to increasing the availabilty of reasonably priced rental units and single family homes. Should this be the responsibility of comminities and local non-profits? Or as a nation, should our government provide more funding through taxation? It becase obvious that this is a very complicated issue that requires the coordinated efforts of all levels of government, non-profits and citizens. — Julia H.

Hurricane Tom

Tom teaches Jess how to cut a straight line with a power saw.

Tom teaches Jess how to cut a straight line with a power saw.

What moves people to work for the common good? Tom Strong started volunteering for Habitat after a career in the military. He was a pilot with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he flew into hurricanes, tracked tornados and followed right whales up and down the East Coast.Tom holds the world record for piloting planes into hurricanes; he’s done it 335 times and brought home many a plane peppered with holes from lightning strikes. 

He began volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in Georgia and eventually was hired as a construction manager. Tom’s been a patient and helpful guide in our work this week, as has Beau Harvey. More on Beau later.

–Nancy K

Southern Hospitality

The warmth of the South extends beyond the gorgeous 70-degree weather that welcomed us Sunday. Everyone we’ve met has been welcoming and friendly, from the folks at Habitat for Humanity to Pastor Edward Bolen, our host at the Milledge Avenue Baptist Church. We’re sleeping in the church’s community room, but Pastor Bolen invited us to use the gathering room, meeting rooms — for students who want a place to study, and even the sanctuary for those seeking tranquility. We also have the run of the church’s immense, restaurant-style kitchen. More on that later.

During Monday night’s reflection there was much discussion about the difference between the pace of life here and in Boston. Would we be friendlier to one another if we weren’t always rushing from one place to another? Here, we’re taking the time to chat with the cashier at the grocery store and the other people we meet. Clearly the Athens people are initiating conversations, as that appears to be the culture here, but we’re perhaps more responsive than we’d be at home.

On the job, we’re very fortunate to be working with Beau Harvey and Tom Strong, two men who have great patience as they teach construction skills to a group of novices. On Tuesday, it rained most of the day so we switched from the new-home site to an apartment building under renovation and spent the day indoors painting. It’s amazing how much can be done with 17 people sanding, edging, and rolling primer and paint.

The community also is helping to feed our group. On Monday we lunched on delicious burritos, chips and salsa from Moe’s Southwest Grille.  Later, under Ana’s tutelage, the group cooked up a dinner feast of chicken and potato taquitos, guacamole, black beans and, from Reycine, curried potatoes. There was chocolate cake for dessert (although we were all full) in celebration of Nicole’s and Andrew’s birthdays this week.

Thank you, Athens, for all your generosity.

–Nancy K


Building in America’s poorest county

Fifteen students wielded hammers, learned to use electric saws and scaled a roof at a Habitat for Humanitu site where two of a projected seven homes are under construction.

But despite the excitement of learning new skills, what struck many of us here in Athens, Georgia, was the revelation that nearly 100 percent of the children in three elementary elementary schools here receive free breakfast and lunch under the federal program based on income. However, Athens Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Spencer Frye told us that the kids were in rough shape when they got to school on Monday mornings, until someone figured out that their families couldn’t afford to feed them on the weekends. Now food is sent home with them on Fridays. One only wonders what the summers are like!

Despite the presence of the University of Georgia, with its beautiful campus and surrounding neighborhoods, this area is the poorest of any county he nation with a population of 100,000 or more. 

Habitat fot Humanity in Athens is not only providing housing for the poor, but by strategically placing the new homes and renovated apartments in high-crime areas, it is proving the “Broken Windows” effect works, as also shown through Professor Brenda Bonds’ research. In the three areas where Habityat has built or is building, crime has plummeted.

–Nancy K

Working up an appetite

We plan to work hard helping to build Habitat for Humanity homes in Athens, Georgia, and we’re lucky enough to have local restaurants providing breakfast and lunch each day.

But we’ll be cooking our own dinners, and people are planning to share and prepare family recipes to keep us well nourished. We’ll try to share them. There also are two birthdays to celebrate, so cake definitely will be on the menu.

Hope the other groups share food ideas and discussion of local cuisine: Will the Denver team be trying Rocky Mountain oysters?