Building dreams, a home at a time

Students relish chance to help Habitat for Humanity

March 09, 2007|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to The Sun

Kate Jones passed up the palm trees and sandy beaches of Florida this week for the lesser-known spring break locale of Brooklyn.

The 20-year-old took a nearly seven-hour van trip with eight classmates from Providence College in Rhode Island to volunteer at two damaged houses with Anne Arundel Habitat for Humanity.

The effort is part of the international organization's Spring Break Collegiate Challenge, which is expected to recruit 11,000 American and Canadian students to build affordable homes for low-income families.

Jones usually spends the week with her grandparents on Marco Island, Fla., where the temperature hovered in the upper 70s this week.

Inside the hulls of the two-story brick homes at 900 and 903 Jack St., the temperature dipped to the low 20s Tuesday. Despite gloves and boots, fingers and toes ached from the cold.

The work keeps them warm, Jones said, taking a break from drilling in supports for an upstairs closet at 900 Jack St.

The elementary-special education major thought the experience of restoring impoverished neighborhoods would make her life more meaningful.

"I just felt this would be more beneficial to myself as well as to others," said Jones, a junior from Chelsea, Mass.

Arundel Habitat for Humanity, the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity International, requires applicants to have an annual income of $17,000 to $34,000 and work up to 400 hours on their own or another Habitat house. They can buy their Habitat house at cost with a no-interest loan.

Terrie Medley, 30, who is planning to move into 903 Jack St. with her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, intends to work more than her 200 hours of "sweat equity."

"I can look back and tell my kids that I helped build a home for us," Medley said.

This is the second year in a row that Arundel Habitat has participated in the Collegiate Challenge.

Last year, a group from Carroll College in Wisconsin came to Anne Arundel County, said Leslie Merwin, a spokeswoman for Arundel Habitat.

The Collegiate Challenge has dispatched more than 139,000 students to build Habitat houses during the past 18 years, according to the organization. Students have raised more than $11 million through the program. This year, Collegiate Challenge students will contribute $1.4 million to help build houses.

In the past 18 months, Arundel Habitat has renovated and sold nine homes to families in the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay areas of Baltimore. On Saturday, Habitat officials dedicated a new home at 838 Jack St.

Its freshly painted green shutters, new windows and well-groomed appearance contrasted with the boarded-up homes on the block of identical two-story brick houses, built in the 1940s for shipyard workers.

Many of the homes have broken chain-link fences surrounding dirt yards with scraps of grass. Prostitutes and drug dealers used to occupy the corner of Ninth and Jack streets.

Neighborhood residents said the criminal element left once families started to move into the finished Habitat homes, said Fred Reno, the site supervisor.

Habitat officials "say we change neighborhoods when we do this," Reno said. "I just didn't think it would happen this fast."

People honk their horns when they drive by Habitat houses, responding to the "Honk for Habitat" invitation scrawled in colored pencil on the windows of the students' rented van.

Inside, the students scan the radio for Baltimore stations, keep warm with hot chocolate and work under the watchful eye of Reno and several of his foremen.

Although most of the students are members of the campus Habitat chapter at Providence College, some had never worked on a house. The college chapter has more than 100 members dispersed to nine Habitat locations this week.

None of the students on the Maryland trip knew each other before they arrived.

Sarah Bidinger, 19, a sophomore from Leesburg, Va., had hoped to return to a Habitat site in North Carolina where she worked last year in 70-degree weather. She said she was surprised to see that Habitat clients took their poor living conditions in stride and were able to find happiness with so little.

"It really turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life," said Bidinger, who sold homemade cookies on campus to finance the $300 cost of this year's trip.

Working on low-income housing brings senior Dan Lade full circle from the homeless shelters and housing projects of his youth.

The 21-year-old from Newport, R.I., was raised by a single mother. They moved often when neighborhoods became too dangerous or landlord relations too precarious.

"Sometimes you get to a place, and you don't unpack the boxes," Lade said. "You know it's not worth the effort."

His life became more stable when his mother married. He describes his life now as upper middle class. The trip is a way of giving back, he said.

"That was part of my life, and it shaped me," Lade said.

Jenna Maieli, 20, a psychology major with a minor in public service, came to bolster her studies in community development.

In her classes, she learns how to assess the strengths and weaknesses of distressed neighborhoods and find ways to restore them.

"This is the start of it - providing low-income housing," she said.

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