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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lycoming College Students Give Hearts and Hands to Tacoma

When I entered the basement of Bethlehem Lutheran Church I expected to attend a meeting. I never expected to find 26 college students camped out there, tired looking but cheerful, with their damp work clothes hung up to dry on some overhead pipes. Someone told me they’d come all the way from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as members of the Lycoming College campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Wow, I thought. There’s a story for Good Life Northwest in here somewhere. I want to meet them. And I did.

These students volunteered to spend their spring break not in Mexico or Florida, but outdoors in Tacoma, Washington, during a March week full of crazy weather, mud, and chilly temperatures, as participants in Habitat's Spring Break Collegiate Challenge. They paid their own airfare to come work with the Tacoma-Pierce County Habitat for Humanity affiliate on a housing project called Larabee Terrace, at E Street and East 36th. That location doesn't exactly make you think of a beach on the Gulf Coast. Instead of swimsuits they wore jeans, T-shirts and sweats, and usually jackets, along with an important fashion accessory: a hard hat. But the next day, when I drove out to the job site under blue skies and sunshine, I witnessed a bunch of hard working people having a lot of fun.

"We might not be at the beach but I'm loving it," said Jestie Higgins. She was eager to speak to me. "It's really beautiful out here and it's such a great place to come and help people out. It's such a strong Habitat group, with a strong program going on here. I think it's kind of an honor to get to come and help them and learn from them."

A senior named Matteuw Hines agreed. He told me about the three years he's taken these trips, including one to New Orleans, and what he thought of Tacoma: "It's pretty good out here. I really like the guys we have to work with, nice good-hearted people. It's a change of scenery too. But I'm not used to having the weather change every five minutes. This is the best weather yet."

The many positive comments about the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate made me curious to know more. Later I called the office and spoke to Cassandra Jarles, Director of Volunteer Services and learned that out of 1600 affiliates across America they rank in the top 50 for how many houses they build each year. They feel enormous gratitude for any help received in the form of volunteerism, cash donations, or used building materials, furniture, appliances, fixtures, etc. to stock the ReStore they operate, another place needing help.

"We're hoping to complete Larabee Terrace by the end of this year," said Jarles. "It would be great if we could have all the homes done by October. It all depends on how many volunteers we get." The Spring Break Collegiate Challenge makes a huge difference.

"We love working with the college kids in collegiate challenge!" said Executive Director Maureen Fife. "They bring an amazing energy and positive attitude to anything they do, whether its working in a muddy foundation trench or putting a roof on. They are game for anything, and always with a smile on their faces. It is really our honor to work with them."

I met one of the three site managers, a local guy with decades of professional experience in construction. Carl, the only name he wanted used, gives a lot of his time to Habitat for Humanity, even though he could be earning good money doing jobs of his own. I could see Carl's passion for what he does, and it made me wonder how many other good people like him quietly go about making the world a better place and don't expect applause. Just in that one day I met many such people. In addition to the students, their adviser, the Campus Minister Rev. Jeffrey LeCrone and three fellow advisers were working hard, as were a number of local volunteers and some future homeowners. The hillside buzzed with activity, punctuated with that satisfying sound of hammers hitting wood.

"We try to build as 'green' as we can," Carl told me, "and we'll recycle about 95% of this stuff." Even the earth moving was done with the environment in mind. I met Chad Bickle who owns a local excavation company called Green Tech. All his equipment runs on vegetable oil, and he's the only one in the area with a business like this.

The word "Terrace" in the name of the development describes it well, since the property where 12 houses will eventually stand slopes at quite an angle. Retaining walls were built to accommodate that number of home sites. Only a few houses are presently under construction, but the size of the project made it perfect for the large group from Lycoming, which was one reason they were matched up with this site.

"We build for our local affiliate back home but we don't put up as many houses because there we can only take a maximum of six or seven people on a work site," said student leader Allison Batties. "That's because we don't have as many leaders to guide us along. So on spring break we look for a site that has lots of projects and lots of leaders to keep everybody busy." Another reason to travel afar is to see other parts of the country. Allison mentioned getting to see the Space Needle in Seattle, and several students remarked on the beauty of Mount Rainier.

"We did get a chance to do a little sightseeing in Seattle one day," said Rev. LeCrone, "and we went to Point Defiance Park too. It's great when students like this give up their spring break to come and help the local affiliate, and it's been a pleasure to take them and the other advisers across the country. They're a great group to work with."

He appreciates the people in Tacoma too. Most of the meals the students ate that week were donated by community groups, churches, a home school and a large number of private individuals. On the night I met them at the church they were heading to the Varsity Grill for a free dinner. The downtown Tacoma YMCA offered a place to take showers and several churches provided shelter at night. It all helped with the many expenses associated with feeding, housing, and transporting thirty people.

I hung around until late in the afternoon, until the time came for the Lycoming chapter to end the last day on this project. They would be followed by other college groups until the challenge ends on April 3rd. Before heading out the students looked around at their accomplishments with a sense of pride and unity. Unity happens to be another thing Habitat for Humanity builds. Carl said: "We're planning to make one of these houses an interfaith project. We'll have volunteers from several different groups working together, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and local Native American tribal members."

Standing there in the sunshine I could look off to the northwest and see a bit of a view. I pictured all that positive energy and goodwill of the volunteers being absorbed into this place, Larabee Terrace, a small neighborhood that families I'd never know would someday call home. I hope they wake up every morning and think about their good fortune and the volunteers who made it all possible. I thought about something the young woman named Jestie said to me, when referring to kids from a home school group that came to serve them lunch: "They were a great bunch of kids and hopefully this will inspire them to come out and pick up a hammer someday."
Hopefully it will, Jestie, and hope is just what you and your friends are bringing to America. Thanks from all of us.

Note: There are still hungry, hard working college students on this project, from other states. Are there more kind citizens of Tacoma out there who can help with meals?

A few facts from the website of the Tacoma-Pierce County Habitat for Humanity:

Habitat has housed more than 291 adults and 588 children

Compared to children of renters, the children of homeowners are 25% more likely to graduate from high school.

Approximately 75% of Tacoma households cannot afford to purchase a home at the median price of $232,000.

Home ownership builds stronger communities. Compared to renters, homeowners are 28% more likely to repair or improve their homes.

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