It’s dark, it’s hot, and I’m sure the little black specks I see are mouse droppings. I’m on vacation, and I’m crawling around in the attic of a rehab Habitat for Humanity home. Yes, an exciting vacation indeed!
There are many ways to give back to the community and one group that I always wanted to help with was Habitat for Humanity. It was on my 50 Weeks to 50 list, but I didn’t get around to signing up until recently. I found that most of the project volunteer days are during the week, and all the Saturdays I looked into were full. I think people like volunteering with projects where they can actually see the results. So I was taking a vacation week and was out of town for most, but not all of the time, so I figured what the heck, might as well help during the week.
I signed up for a rehab house in National City. The San Diego Habitat for Humanity affiliate will occasionally obtain homes that have been abandoned and fix them up and find a family that qualifies under their low-income standards. Those that live in San Diego know that housing is expensive and can be tough for anyone to afford. And since home rehabs is somewhat the family business, I thought helping on a rehab project was an appropriate way to give back.
I drive to National City early one morning under dark skies with thunder and lightning threatening. I was worried that rain may delay the project. And yes when I arrived Dale, the project supervisor, informed us that the project was delayed. Not due to weather though, but because the plumbing and electrical work that was to be completed, was not. Those who have had remodeling projects can sympathize. So today we were assigned clean up type duties. Darn, I was looking forward to nailing in something, I like working with hammers.
Lucky short, I say petite, me gets sent up to the attic. Along with one of the shorter guys (but Navy tough), we are to clean up the attic and make sure it’s not a fire hazard prior to putting in the new insulation. The others get sent to the crawl space underneath the home, which is actually about four feet in height, so they could somewhat standup primal like. I probably could have stood upright. Whoohoo, the advantages of being short, I mean petite!
We climb up the ladder, flashlights in hand. Yup, it’s pretty dark up there and very low. How the heck are we supposed to reach the corners and edges? Dale tells us that we can’t put weight on the attic floor (ceiling) so as to not fall through. That we need to move along the joists (I think that’s what they’re called?). There are wooden planks that we can place on top of the joists and use to crawl, or shimmy on to get to outlying areas. This wasn’t really what I was expecting this morning, but someone has to do it right?
So we use the flashlight to guide us along and show the way to the areas that need cleanup. Gloves are on, and we use masks to keep dust particles, and who knows what else, out of our lungs. I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out how to move from one place to another without stepping on the floor. Good thing I didn’t have a camera filming my backside, because that would have been a sight to see as I tried to angle and position my way around. I move planks along as I try to reach that one piece of wood or old insulation in the far recesses of the ceiling. Inch by inch I would slide towards that elusive excess wood, one stretch of the fingertips, and yes success! Okay, the rest of the attic to go.
As we slowly clean it up, the temperature gets hotter and hotter, and breathing with a mask on makes it worse. We take a break to breathe without the mask. But as we continue I do keep it on, because looking the attic floor, who knows what critters were up here and left who knows what in their droppings. When we are done, I climb down last — for a while I think Dale was going to leave me there, as my short legs barely reached the ladder top.
Dale talks to us some more about Habitat as we gather in front of the house. There’s a little bit of digging to be done around the pipes. So the group stands around and watches while one guy digs. You see, there really wasn’t much more for us to do today. We try and use up time picking up miscellaneous debris left outside and in the backyard. Volunteers can actually do quite a bit more — put up walls, floors, drywall, paint, roof, etc. I will definitely have to sign up again so I can do other building work. Think of it as being a construction intern. The skills you learn may prove to be useful in the future.
But as we stand around, Dale shares with us some of his experiences with Habitat for Humanity projects. They have a couple of new multi-home building projects, one in Imperial Beach and one in Escondido. His favorite projects are those that fall under the Repair Corps category. Repair Corps helps with home fixes for veterans, many who have been wounded. Habitat volunteers will come in and upgrade the home in many ways, including building wheelchair ramps and install walk-in bathtubs. He recalls listening to the vets’ war stories — Pearl Harbor survivor, World War II vets, and Vietnam War vets who told about their experiences of having to fight hand to hand with their bayonets, only camouflaged by the jungle flora. Guys that honorably sacrificed themselves for our country. Dale says the best part is that so many of them are so grateful for what Habitat does for them, and that they get letters of thanks all the time.
We really should write more thank you notes. And thanks to people like Dale who works for an organization making a difference in people’s lives.
We volunteers had a short work day. The group consisted of me, Rebecca who works in real estate so she has a flexible work schedule, and three Navy guys helping on their time off. I think it’s great that we had the opportunity to help with Habitat, because face it, it’s expensive to live in San Diego, and affordable housing is one of the biggest problems. For many families it may be the choice between keeping a roof over their head or food. How much of your income can you feasibly allocate for housing, while trying to feed a family, pay for transportation, utilities, taxes, etc. You all know – it all adds up. It’s a problem I saw when I stayed overnight at the San Diego Rescue Mission (see Week 5), it’s hard to find affordable housing when you are already struggling. I’m honored to help in even the teeny tiny way I did with Habitat. Whoever wants to join me in the future, we can plan a group activity on a Saturday.
Now, reflecting back about our own communities. Many of us like to think only certain neighborhoods need this kind of assistance. But even in my neighborhood, there’s always that one house that seems to be a blight. Do we know their story? Have we ever asked why their properties are being neglected. Maybe an elderly person lives there and can’t maintain or doesn’t have the means to help maintain the property due to physical reasons. Some probably feel too proud to ask for help. Look around your community. If you live in one like University City where I live, homes are getting at that age where repairs and maintenance are needed. And if you bought your home over 30 years ago, are still living in it with now a fixed retirement income, it’s not that you don’t want to fix up your home, you just don’t have the means to – physically and financially. Maybe it’s time to bring the Habitat model to the hyper-local level and make it a project of our neighborhood watches. We can truly watch and take care of each other. It only takes an afternoon to make a difference in someone’s life. All you need to do is ask.
About Habitat for Humanity: The San Diego affiliate of Habitat for Humanity is governed locally, raises funds locally, and builds locally. As with the international group, SDHFH’s mission is to bring people together to build homes, communities and hope. Recipients of HFH homes are required to put in sweat equity into their own home or other projects. They have new build projects, rehab projects and special projects for veterans – Repair Corps and Building for the Brave. Other special events include Builders Blitzes and Women Build. SDHFH also runs ReStore, a home improvement outlet store that accepts donations of and sells used building materials. There are two ReStore locations in Mission Valley and Escondido. Individuals and groups can volunteer on the building projects, at the ReStore locations, and with administrative duties. Minimum age to volunteer is 16, but sometimes younger children can help with parental supervision. And I’m serious about planning a group. UC Mamas, are you all in?
San Diego Habitat for Humanity: www.sdhfh.org