U students create new homes with hammers, hearts

The University’s chapter sent four teams to volunteer around the country.

Greg Corradini

Over winter break, some University students put on their tool belts and headed for Florida.

Others piled into cramped vans and drove to South Carolina, New Mexico and Washington.

All were volunteers in Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge, a program that encourages collegiate chapters to travel abroad during school breaks. The University group sent four volunteer teams this winter break to hammer away at projects around the country.

Dave Degenhardt, the program’s coordinator for the University, said the team takes trips every winter and spring break.

Land of sun and shingles

It did not take much to get Bryan Walters to volunteer.

The University computer engineering senior and six other volunteers worked for a week in North Fort Myers, Fla.

With Minnesota’s cold more than 1,700 miles away, Walters said he could enjoy Florida’s perfect climate.

“Just to go down there and get the nice weather was worth it,” Walters said. “You hate to say you did it just for a good cause.”

In Florida, Walters said, his group worked four days with members of AmeriCorps shingling the roofs on three houses for the Lee County Habitat for Humanity. On the fifth day, they painted and completed trim work on a nearly finished house, he said.

Liz Monaghan, the volunteer coordinator for the Lee County affiliate, said the Minnesota crew finished the roofing job earlier than expected.

“We were hoping they would get close to finishing by the end of the week,” Monaghan said. “They completed it in four days instead of five. They were an awesome group.”

When the Minnesota crew wasn’t working, Walters said, they hung out on the beach and tossed a football.

“We did a lot of screwing around,” he said.


In Johns Island, S.C., another University Habitat for Humanity group assisted with the last phase of a 70-unit housing neighborhood called Sea Island Place.

Troy Pruitt, the construction site manager, said the Minnesota team helped dig foundations, pour concrete driveways and move appliances into finished houses.

“It takes 2,000 volunteer hours to build a house,” Pruitt said. “We depend upon AmeriCorps, local volunteers and college groups.”

But, he said, safety issues are important when working with college students, many of whom do not have construction experience.

“Ladders are the main thing,” Pruitt said.

The students, he said, tend to be energetic when working on a house. A lot of them, he said, forget they leave their hammers resting on top of stepladders.

“When they go to move the ladder, the hammer will fall on their head,” Pruitt said. “That’s the most frequent accident we have here.”

Just ask Jill Melaas.

The University sophomore and a South Carolina volunteer said this was her first Habitat for Humanity trip. Evidently, she and her crew of mostly newcomers had not heard about the all-too-common hammer accident.

“Right now, when we breaked for lunch, three people I was working with all put our hammers on top of the ladder,” Melaas said.

During the week, Melaas said, she helped backfill pipe holes, dig foundations and nail gypsum wallboard to walls.

“I wouldn’t say that it is all fun,” she said. “But it is really rewarding. At the end of the day, you feel good, because you can see how much you accomplished.”

Building for Minnesota

Although the University’s Habitat for Humanity chapter refrains from taking trips during the regular semester, it hammers away nonetheless.

Jess Ahlemeier, the University’s Habitat for Humanity volunteer coordinator, said the University chapter usually works on a Twin Cities house once or twice a week. There are 10 volunteer spaces open for each build, she said.

“Usually, we build on Saturdays, and it’s a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. commitment,” Ahlemeier said.

As a result of her first trip, Melaas said, she will probably get more involved with the University’s Habitat for Humanity chapter this semester.

“It is just nice to see people coming together for a common cause and doing something to help others,” she said.