Abita Springs, Louisiana is not exactly a vacation destination. It’s a little town west of Slidell, La., on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain — no stoplights, a handful of stores, a school, a diner, and a brewery. But in a little rundown neighborhood on the edge of this town, 44 UW-Green Bay students spent an incredible week building homes for five deserving families as part of the Habitat for Humanity Collegiate Challenge program.
The students arrived in Louisiana midday on Sunday, January 13 after a 19-hour bus ride from Wisconsin; 36 females and 8 males, freshmen through seniors, 14 who had been on at least one winter Habitat trip before, and 30 for whom this was a first-time experience. Most of the students knew, at most, a couple of others at the start of the trip. By the time they returned on Sunday, January 20 however, they were a tight-knit group bonded by the challenging but rewarding experience they had shared.
For a week, the students lived in barracks-style housing at a Volunteer Center in Slidell where they shared 8 showers, a couple of bathrooms, and a dining hall. Each day, they awoke at 6:45 a.m., ate breakfast and packed a lunch, boarded the bus at 7:15, and got dropped off at the job sites in nearby Abita Springs. The students were divided into five crews, and each crew was assigned to a house that was under construction. The work day was from 8:00 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., and it was truly hard physical labor all day — hauling lumber, sawing, pounding nails, climbing on ladders, scaffolds and roofs, raising walls and setting roof trusses.
As if the work itself was not enough of a challenge, the weather was extraordinarily uncooperative the first three days. Weeks of rain prior to their arrival had left the job sites muddy messes of red clay and standing water. The temperatures were also unseasonably cold (in the high 30s). But the students were undaunted; they donned boots, sweatshirts, rain ponchos and nail aprons and went about the business of building houses. The weather cleared by midweek, and the sun and warm temperatures motivated the students to work even harder the last three days. By the end of the week, they had literally built and raised all the walls on two houses, enclosed a third house and set all of its roof trusses, installed all the roof sheathing and fascia on a fourth house, and built a porch and perimeter enclosures on a fifth house. Not bad, considering that two-thirds of the students had no experience whatsoever with building or carpentry work, and had never used hand or power tools prior to this week.
When it was time to depart for the 19-hour trip back to Wisconsin, there were lots of sore arms, backs and wrists. Cuts and bruises on fingers and thumbs were numerous. Fatigue was obvious. But the sense of pride and accomplishment was tangible, and there was not a single student who would rather have spent the week anywhere else. The students will certainly have many fond memories of this trip. More importantly, however, in a couple of months, five families in the little town of Abita Springs, La. will have safe, secure, affordable well-built homes, thanks in part to the extraordinary effort of 44 UW-Green Bay students.
— Story and photos by Mike Stearney, UWGB Habitat for Humanity Adviser and Dean of Enrollment Services