Warm memories of a cool trip: January in Raleigh with Habitat for Humanity

UW-Green Bay Student Chapter, Habitat for Humanity, Raleigh, North Carolina, January 2014(Michael Stearney, UW-Green Bay’s dean of enrollment services, makes a habit of assisting with fundraising for the campus Habitat for Humanity chapter and its annual build trip. As adviser, he also travels with the group and serves as chief cook and bottle washer. He shares the following of the January 2014 journey, just concluded.)

It seems that when the UW-Green Bay Student Chapter of Habitat for Humanity travels south in January for their annual Collegiate Challenge build trip, they bring the upper Midwest climate with them. They brought a frost to southern Florida in 2010 that devastated the orange crop, they shut down the city of Birmingham in 2011 with an ice storm, and they brought unseasonably cold weather to Louisiana in both 2012 and 2013. This year, they brought single-digit temperatures to Raleigh, North Carolina and managed to close the public schools for part of a day.

But despite the cold temperatures and some other unanticipated challenges, 28 UWGB students made the very best of the circumstances and contributed upwards of a thousand hours of volunteer labor to the Wake County Chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The group’s indomitable spirit, good cheer, outstanding work ethic and brave resiliency earned them a great reputation in their host community in North Carolina.

The trip began on Saturday, Jan. 4 with a 19+ hour, 1,000-mile bus trip across six states, with the group traveling at one point in near white-out conditions through a snow storm in Indiana. On Sunday afternoon, the 28 students arrived at their lodging site at a local church volunteer center, where they slept on air mattresses and made due with two showers for the week.

The Habitat work on this trip was unique for its variety. The students spent one day working at the Habitat ReStore facilities in Raleigh and Cary, N.C. The ReStores recycle used building materials and donated items, keeping useable materials out of the landfills and providing an important source of revenue for Wake County Habitat. All the funds raised are directed toward new home construction. The students then spent two days on build sites occupied with a variety of tasks including interior painting and trim work, vinyl siding installation, caulking and relocating building materials.

After a recreation day that included a visit to Duke University and a trip to the Atlantic coast, the last two days of the trip were spent on deconstruction: the tearing down of houses. The rising value of prime property within the city of Raleigh has led to older homes in nice neighborhoods being torn down to make way for more modern (and generally larger) new homes. Wake County Habitat bids on home demolitions, but rather than simply bulldoze the homes, they take them apart and recycle 80+% of the building materials through the ReStore. Profits from these “decon” projects fund two to three new Habitat homes annually. The students spent 1 and 1/2 days pulling nails with pry bars and pliers, sorting and stacking recycled lumber, and knocking down masonry walls with sledge hammers.

Adversity presented itself in many forms on this trip. The cold temperatures made for unpleasant working conditions; the roller covers and brushes used for painting literally had to be thawed out in front of kerosene heaters some mornings, and even on the one warm day of the trip, the students worked outside in a light rain. In the middle of the week, the students discovered that someone had apparently gained access to the volunteer center while they were at work and had robbed nine students of approximately $300 in cash. Another guest staying at the center, a destitute single mother and her 6-year-old daughter, also had money taken, including the daughter’s piggy bank of coins.

This entire event certainly challenged the group, causing some fear and anxiety. But even in a moment when their own faith in human nature had been tested, they chose to perform a simple, selfless act of kindness. On Friday, their last night in Raleigh, some of the students walked down the street to a neighborhood pharmacy and purchased a small purse. The students then pooled all of the loose change that they had, filled the purse with coins and left them for the little girl.

It’s been said that the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do. In changing the world one house at a time on these trips, UW-Green Bay students change the trajectory of other people’s lives, but they themselves are also changed. They do us proud.

— Mike Stearney

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