Students help in north Mpls Mega Build

More than 50 students volunteered their Saturday to help houses feel like homes.

Amanda Bankston

When Tawanda Miller needed to turn her life around, she packed up her two children and boarded the first Greyhound bus from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. She arrived in the Twin Cities with no friends, no money and no idea where her family would sleep.
âÄúThe first thing I asked when we got off the bus was for directions to the nearest shelter,âÄù she said. âÄúWeâÄôve come a long way.âÄù
Saturday, members of the University of Minnesota Chapter of Habitat for Humanity helped Miller take one of her last steps from homelessness to homeownership as part of their first-ever Mega Build event.
âÄúI thought of this for other people,âÄù Miller said, watching as her youngest child shoveled dirt alongside a group of University volunteers to make way for her new plants, âÄúbut never for myself.âÄù
MillerâÄôs home was one of five sites where University students spent the day raking, shoveling and planting to add curb appeal to newly finished Habitat homes in North Minneapolis.
More than 50 students participated in the all-day event, which was designed last year to attract interest in the group at the very start of the school year, said Michael Resman, the groupâÄôs president.
Students received breakfast, transportation, lunch and T-shirts for participating, with sponsorship from a Coca-Cola grant.
âÄúWe have all of these people who have been wanting to do something right away when school starts,âÄù Resman said.
Volunteers Ashley Gilles and Kimberly Tam were among the first to sign up. Though the pair regularly attended the groupâÄôs meetings last year, they had yet to put in work on site.
âÄúWe had to sign up at the beginning of August to be able to do this,âÄù Gilles said, breaking up the roots of flowers to prepare them to go into the ground. âÄúThere were so many people interested. IâÄôm just happy to finally get to do this.âÄù
Members of the University Extension master gardener program were also involved. They were responsible for the landscape design and educating University students and homeowners on the plants and methods used.
Gilles said it gave them a taste of a part of Minneapolis she had never explored beyond media headlines.
âÄúI knew about the tornado and some of the violence,âÄù she said. âÄúBut itâÄôs nice to get out here and see it for myself.âÄù
Like most student participants, volunteering was nothing new for Gilles and Tam, who participated in service projects throughout high school.
Andrew Schmied, who had mandated volunteer hours throughout his K-12 schooling, said âÄúsomething didnâÄôt feel rightâÄù without taking time to help the community during his freshman year, which drew him to the Mega Build.
But even for avid volunteers, Habitat for Humanity stands out, said Kate Kilp, a housing studies senior.
âÄúWeâÄôre working directly with homeowners,âÄù she said. âÄúWe immediately get to see that what weâÄôre doing is having an impact and who is affected.âÄù
Resman said part of the eventâÄôs goal was to educate students about the program and dispel common misconceptions like the idea that the program gives away homes.
He said homeowners put in hundreds of hours of âÄúSweat EquityâÄù and still make payments on their homes.
His sister, Anna Resman, who coordinated this yearâÄôs build, said the pride of the homeowners  after all their hard work makes volunteering worth it.
âÄúWhen we get here and talk to these people and hear what type of living conditions they were in before, that makes all of this time and effort worth it,âÄù she said.
Pride is the only word homeowner Melo Lawson could use to describe her feelings about her new place. While most homeowners were working in the yard with volunteers, Lawson was busy at work in the kitchen.
Two months ago, she moved into her home, which former President Jimmy Carter worked on this summer, so the student volunteers were among her first house guests.
âÄúI wish I could spend more time gardening with them,âÄù she said. âÄúBut these are my guests. I need to cook for them. ItâÄôs kind of like a housewarming party.âÄù
Lawson applied for the program four times before being approved for the home. She said she feels inspired by the fact that young students were so willing to give her their time on a Saturday.
âÄúThis is great for students,âÄù she said. âÄúYou get to put all that theory about the world into practice and realize how much of an impact you can make on people. This is such a blessing.âÄù