Building houses, and connections


April 13, 2007|By Janet Gilbert

This is the hammer that sat in the house that DreamBuilders fixed.

This is Lime Kiln Middle School student Will Swygert, 14, who picked up the hammer that sat in the house that DreamBuilders fixed.

These are the adult leaders who taught Will and about 20 other middle school students to pick up the hammers, T-squares and paintbrushes to work on the house that DreamBuilders fixed.

These are the individuals from the Arc of Howard County who are thrilled to be living in the beautifully renovated house in Columbia that DreamBuilders fixed.

It is a simple, beautiful story that starts out of state and winds its way home, connecting people of many backgrounds and faiths along the way.

DreamBuilders - an interdenominational group of teens and adults whose mission is to build and repair homes for those in need - began as a small outreach group at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Highland in 2002. Eight teens and four adults went to work with Habitat for Humanity to build two homes in Pendleton County, W.Va.

According to a fact sheet from the Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity organization in West Virginia, more than one in 10 people in Pendleton County live below the poverty level.

Highland resident John McBeth, 54, from St. Mark's, was involved from the start. "I knew I was interested," he said. "I enjoy construction, it's almost relaxing. It's very different from my job in technology."

McBeth found that the West Virginia trip's ratio of two-thirds teens to one-third adults worked well; DreamBuilders tries to replicate it on all projects.

Empowered by the Pendleton experience, students returned home and told their friends. By 2005, the group had expanded to 80 missioners representing four Episcopal Churches: St. Mark's in Highland, Trinity in Waterloo, St. Peter's in Ellicott City and Ascension in Westminster. Adopting the name DreamBuilders, they flew to New Mexico to "blitz build" two homes in one week.

In 2006, Temple Isaiah joined the group, and St. John's Episcopal in Ellicott City was represented, as well.

"We had hoped to build in the area devastated by [Hurricane] Katrina," said Fulton resident Lisa Ghessie, 50, an adult leader who became involved when her daughter signed up for a DreamBuilders trip. "Unfortunately, they didn't have the infrastructure in place at the time. So we returned to New Mexico, where we knew there was such a need."

One hundred and twenty missioners worked on four homes last summer - blitz-building two and completing two others.

This year, the group has planned a trip to Biloxi, Miss., to work with that area's Habitat affiliate on new construction of three- and four-bedroom homes. The members also are planning two New Mexico trips, blitz-building multiple homes in a 12-house subdivision.

"Our goal is to have 500 [people] willing and able to go anywhere there is a need in the world," said McBeth. "Replacing ourselves is a part of our vision. Our promise is that you can join us, or we'll help you start up your own organization."

As the group grew, DreamBuilders' adult leaders began hearing from their respective congregations that they would like to see some needs addressed here. At the same time, the adult leaders made a decision to restrict the out-of-state trips to students who were high school sophomores or older.

"This disappointed a lot of the younger kids," Ghessie said.

Enter Linda Congedo, volunteer coordinator for the Arc of Howard County.

"Actually, I was cold-calling Temple Isaiah, and I recognized Marge Gold's name," Congedo said.

"I've long been connected with the Arc," said Gold, who works as education director at Temple Isaiah. "When Linda told me about the house, I thought, `This might be the perfect thing for the younger kids.'"

Gold and McBeth came out to see the single-family house in the Hopewell community of Owen Brown, which needed carpeting, new paint and a half-bathroom installed, among other things.

"I kind of got depressed," Gold said. "John thought it was great!"

"We walked through it - it needed major renovation," said McBeth.

Even Congedo had her doubts. "Most volunteer groups don't have the drive or leadership to do this type of project."

"We did a lot of prep," said Gold. "There were four evenings, where six to 10 of us [adults] were here.

"It could have been a big flop, with all of us [adults] ending up doing it. But our congregations just got so excited. The teens and parents really got into it," she added.

"We had 45 people in this house at one time, and everyone was just getting into the zone, working," added McBeth.

Jamie Shelnitz, 14, a Lime Kiln student who attends Temple Isaiah, pitched in on the project, nicknamed "If I Had a Hammer." So did her friend, Emily Pigott, 13, who also attends Lime Kiln and worships at St. Mark's Church.

"We painted this room," Jamie said. . "We learned how you have to use the roller and make an `m' and then fill it in."

"We had to tape everything," said Emily. "Come look at the closet, it's our favorite."

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