Building houses for reading week


As a general rule, I exert as little energy as possible. You won’t see me up before the crack of noon without direct intervention and as far as hard work goes, I don’t. That’s just one of the perks of being an English and Film major. So when I, intrepid reporter Matthew Grant, stepped onto a bus full of strange Laurier students excited and ready to start the WLU Habitat for Humanity Collegiate Challenge, I was a little overwhelmed. That was a feeling that would stick with me all week, in one way or another.

Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit organization that works to provide sustainable, safe, and affordable housing to individuals and communities in need. In order to obtain a Habitat house three criteria are necessary: the ability to demonstrate financial need, a willingness to partner (including participation in training programs and 350-500 hours of work on the home), and the ability to make payments on an individually determined, interest-free mortgage. Through initiatives such as the ReStore, Global Village and Collegiate Challenge, Habitat for Humanity utilizes volunteers and donated materials to build modest, affordable homes for millions of people around the world.

As one of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Habitat for Humanity volunteers, I helped fundraise for the Collegiate Challenge, and was one of the lucky few first years who managed to make it on the trip. This year the build took place in North Carolina, with our group of over 50 students being bussed down at the beginning of reading week to be split between two local affiliates: Chatham and Wake County. I was part of the Chatham group, a rural affiliate based out of the town of Pittsboro, while those in Wake spent their time in the nearby city of Raleigh.

David Snyder, resource development manager with Chatham County Habitat discussed the history of their chapter with me. He said, “We’ve been here since 1989, almost 22 years, and in that time we’ve built 105 houses. Over the first ten years we built 11 houses, since, we’ve ramped up considerably… building somewhere, dependent on the economy, from six to 12 houses [per year].”

The dedication and compassion that Snyder’s words suggest became apparent to me in the work that we did and the ways in which all of the volunteers and staff worked as well. From those working at the build sites and renovating rehabilitated homes, to those working with family and community services within Habitat, to the volunteers who spend their time at ReStores (hardware stores stocked with reclaimed materials), or those who donate either supplies or their own time, the amount of compassion and effort is astounding.

For Evie McGowan, president of the WLU Habitat for Humanity Volunteers, the Collegiate Challenge has been an initiative close to her heart. A four year veteran of the Challenge, she said, “It’s given me the opportunity to be involved in something that I feel really passionate about… and it’s allowed me to meet some amazing volunteers and get involved with something that’s made such an impact on the world.” McGowan and her executive team of volunteers organized the entire trip including fundraising, arranging transportation and accommodation, as well as providing meals and organizing activities such as our trip to the Carolina Tiger Rescue and a Carolina Hurricanes game.

But it wasn’t all ”tigers and hockey and hammers, oh my”; there were a few unforeseen circumstances as well. “You can never plan for everything and there’s always something that goes wrong,” said McGowan, “but you try to plan as much as possible and hopefully everything will work out.”

From a five hour detour between border crossings to a misunderstanding about our date of arrival at a motel, our trip definitely had its ups and downs. But because of the enthusiasm and kindness of the local volunteers, and the spirit of camaraderie and closeness that only 23 hours crammed on a bus can bring, we were able to take everything in stride and remember what we were there to do.

“We don’t see ourselves as builders,”
said Snyder, “but really as community

If there’s one thing I took from this trip, it’s that. Seeing the neighbourhoods that have been built and sustained by Habitat, and the sense of community that it has engendered not only among residents but volunteers as well has helped me to better understand the amazing role that compassion and hard work can play. Over the course of 9 days I discovered what happens when people really care about others, and the scope of what those people can accomplish. I also like to think that I made over 50 new friends.

When I asked her about her most memorable experience with Habitat, McGowan told me something deeply meaningful. She said, “I remember last year we went to Florida, and at the end of the trip we wrote messages on the walls of the house that we were building. It was still just being framed so they were going to get covered anyway, but we wrote messages to the family.… we were building with.”

And so we wrote messages from each and every one of us, wishing them well.
That was one of the first times that it actually really connected with me what I was doing and the people it was going to impact, kind of personalizing the nails that I was hammering into the house. That it wasn’t necessarily just a bunch of two by fours and sheets of plywood, but it was actually someone’s home.

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Serving the Waterloo campus, The Cord seeks to provide students with relevant, up to date stories. We’re always interested in having more volunteer writers, photographers and graphic designers.