Helping build homes to make `a real difference'

Howard Neighbors

March 17, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

It is no exaggeration to say Dunloggin residents Gary and Lynn Pakulla are in the housing business 24-7. When they're working as real estate agents, they're helping Howard County residents buy and sell homes. When they're vacationing, they're building decent, affordable housing with Habitat for Humanity, as participants or team leaders.

In 1999, Lynn Pakulla received the book Living Faith by Jimmy Carter as a birthday gift from her husband. She read with interest the section on Carter's work with Habitat for Humanity International. Habitat's Web site ( delineates its mission: " ... to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world, and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action."

"When you get to be 50-plus," said Lynn, "you start to wonder, what's this all about? What do I want on my tombstone?"

Lynn did research on the Habitat Web site and told her husband she was interested in going on a Global Village Trip.

Global Village Trips with Habitat provide an opportunity to work alongside people from another culture. "It's a very responsible way to see the world," said Gary Pakulla.

Gary and Lynn signed on for their first trip, to Antubochiu, Kenya, in 2001. As part of a group of 15 people, they helped build three homes in two weeks.

Habitat home designs vary by locale, reflecting the culture and climate of a particular region. In Kenya, the homes were 14-foot-by-24-foot wood structures with metal corrugated roofs and concrete floors, replacing existing thatch-roof and mud-hut dwellings susceptible to termite and rodent infestation.

Habitat provides an on-site construction supervisor - usually a native speaker - who has obtained the necessary building supplies. The construction supervisor meets with the project's Habitat team leader, who each morning sets out the day's work plan for the volunteers, many of whom have little or no construction experience.

"The Habitat homes are fairly simple," said Gary. "Believe it or not, 80 percent of a home can be built by anybody."

Lynn had no carpentry experience before the Kenya project. "The first time I used a hammer," she said, "I was missing the nails."

Lynn quickly became proficient, and she noted that there was a "good spirit" among the members of the work group.

"Everybody just pitches in," she said. "If you want to work 12 hours a day, you can. If you are less physically able, you can always mix up the concrete or bring water to the volunteers."

Lynn and Gary knew that the Kenya project would be physically challenging. They prepared themselves for the tent camp with no running water or electricity and the fact that they would have a 45-minute walk to the work site with their tools and water each day. But nothing prepared them for the level of poverty they witnessed.

"The world needs to wake up to these possibilities," said Gary, speaking of the need to provide decent housing. "There are 6 billion people inhabiting the world - and 2 billion in substandard housing. If everyone could do a little bit, we could make a real difference - and not just in housing, but in people's self-esteem."

The Pakullas talk about how, working in a Habitat group, volunteers experience a "sense of oneness" with the people of the world: a feeling of connectedness that transcends language and culture. The Pakullas point out that, while categorized as "poor" from an economic standpoint, the people for whom they have helped build houses all over the world are rich when it comes to having a sense of community.

This is what keeps Gary and Lynn going back for more Habitat experiences. Last month, they were in Rio Claro, Costa Rica, building a home for the Villalobos family.

Alberto Villalobos and his wife and two daughters had been living behind his muffler repair and installation shop, in a cramped space fashioned with wood and corrugated sheet metal on a gravel floor. The new Habitat home would be a little less than 600 square feet, with stucco walls and a concrete floor.

Alberto Villalobos worked alongside the volunteers, as is required for Habitat projects. The finished house was sold to the family for the cost of the materials - about $8,000 - which the Villaloboses would pay over time on an interest-free loan. The mortgage payments are used to build more Habitat homes.

"Good begets good," Gary Pakulla said of the Habitat methods and spirit.

When the Rio Claro crew members learned that Deya, Alberto's wife, would have loved a tile floor - not standard in Habitat homes - they took up a collection and presented the Villalobos family with a gift certificate from a tile store at the end of the project.

A Habitat project includes time for rest and relaxation. Team leaders try to organize a small trip or tour so volunteers can experience a little of what is unique about the country in which they are working. In Costa Rica, the Pakullas visited a rainforest.

"It's certainly a vacation with meaning," Gary said.

For their next humanitarian adventure, the Pakullas are considering a Habitat for Humanity Jimmy Carter Work Project in Lonavala, India, in the fall. Jimmy Carter Work Projects are done on a large scale, drawing thousands of local and international volunteers. The India project aims to complete 101 homes in six days.

"I hope we can continue to do this into our 90s," Lynn said.


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