Building instead of beaches—that was the uncommon 2012 spring break choice made by eight UW-Fond du Lac students in March.
In a rented Chevy Suburban decorated with drawings of the Falcon mascot and the words “Georgia, here we come,” the group drove to a Habitat for Humanity site in southern Georgia to build bridges between communities while aiding construction on homes for two veterans.
“I wanted to show students there is lot out there they can do,” said Kate Bauer, returning adult student and campus Habitat club founder, recently honored as a Newman Fellow by Campus Compact for her community commitment. “I’m a Habitat homeowner, so I’m familiar with the program. I knew there were some obstacles to overcome, but it means a lot to reach out to help.”
Making the connection with Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge program was easy, Bauer said. The harder part was narrowing down the location choices to a drivable distance and helping to shape processes that would allow the group to travel to a build site. This marked the first time a UW-Fond du Lac student group had traveled out of state. Bauer was entrusted as the project and group leader. “I didn’t have to lay down the law too often,” she joked. “They know I am the mother of six kids.”
Location, Location, Location
The ideal location for volunteering proved to be Albany, GA, birthplace of musician Ray Charles and hometown of recent American Idol winner Phillip Phillips.
“It was pretty obvious they needed Habitat to come in and build homes,” Bauer said, noting how a river draws a geographical line through the city, with mansions on one side and poverty in the shape of burned out houses and shacks in the largely African American community on the other bank. “Habitat has been there 15 years, and there are 65 homes in their suburb. The yards are kept and the houses maintained. It’s like Oz, when Dorothy steps out. It felt like a really positive impact on the community.”
After nearly 20 hours in a car followed by communal living at a Lutheran retreat center—a novelty for many of UW-Fond du Lac’s commuting students—the Fond du Lac contingent gelled well and found their friendships deepening. Their volunteer community grew exponentially as they lived and worked with a student group of 30 from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA.
“I was moved to see people from different states come together to help these two families,” said Joan Wright, a UW-Fond du Lac student from the Fox Valley area who joined the campus group to make connections in Fond du Lac. “It was a large group who chose not to go to Florida for spring break, but to make a difference. On our last night before the other student group left, we had a talent show and a circle where we talked about our experience of joining in on this. It really moved a lot of us. This makes being part of the human race totally worth it….The people drawn to this type of event are valuable to bond with. A lot of things can be accomplished at a campus like this.”
While Wright brought some construction skills to the trip—“I grew up in a family where we built things,” she said—most of the UW-Fond du Lac students had more modest skills, or skills not yet tapped. They received on-the-job training during their 8 a.m.-4 p.m. workdays and learned about paneling, siding, insulation made from recycled jeans, measuring and cutting materials, tool use and methods for moving materials.
“This was my first time to build anything, ever,” said Amanda Fellion, a Campbellsport native who will hold a campus Habitat chapter leadership role in the fall. She hopes to encourage more students to commit to a similar trip next year. “I’ll never forget the first time I used a table saw. We had a good supervisor—Mr. Ed—he was picky, but knew what he was talking about. I wasn’t scared. It felt pretty empowering, and I feel like I could do anything. I know I can go to the Fond du Lac build and be helpful.”
“I had never built before,” said first-year student Kayla Binner of Fond du Lac, who enjoyed time spent with Fellion while painting the front of a house in a single day. She was interested in joining the Habitat for Humanity group because her mother has a friend with a Habitat home. “This was a way to start, and when else will I get a chance like this? It was nice to do, for myself and others. It will shape my life in important ways, like communication and teamwork.”
Joshua Giese had experience with hammers, drills and miter saws from completing projects with his dad prior to the trip. His work in Georgia focused on installing siding and paneling. “I could put in paneling all day now,” he laughed.
Giese, who has been on church-sponsored mission trips, said of his decision to make the Habitat trip: “What a unique experience, to go with school….I could go on this trip or sleep and do nothing—which I wouldn’t mind. But, I enjoy this type of work, so it was a perfect fit. People clearly wanted to be there, and it was truly inspiring…I’ll never forget the passion.”
Fellion says she will continue to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity after she transfers to complete her degree. “I know for sure it will be part of my life from here on out,” she said. “It really does teach good values and morals.”
Walls Built, Barriers Broken
The Albany homes are being constructed in a flood zone, which resonated with Bauer, whose Fond du Lac home also is built on a raised foundation to avoid flooding. But the seven-and-a-half foot retaining walls in Georgia are nearly double those of Bauer’s home, and provided an interesting access issue. All materials and people entered the homes through a memorable and moveable “Stairway to Heaven,” which could be removed at night to prevent unauthorized access to the building sites.
Habitat work crosses racial barriers, Bauer noted. While the group was working in an African American neighborhood on homes that would be occupied by veterans, Bauer felt strongly connected to all the area homeowners she met. “We meet on common ground,” she said in reference to her own Habitat home ownership.
Student volunteers all recalled with pleasure their invitation into an Albany Habitat home, owned by a woman named Miss Lulu, who had been in her home for 11 years. “She welcomed a busload of us into her house,” said Wright. The visitors filed through a buffet that included homemade fried chicken, exited out the back door and picnicked in the back yard.
The Georgia location provided an additional opportunity: visiting the Habitat Global Village in Americus. There, the group saw examples of Habitat homes built in 20 countries, reflecting the culture of the home locations.
“Habitat runs on the hearts and souls of people,” said Bauer, who is making a short documentary of the experience for a film class led by UW-Fond du Lac instructor Richard Klein and exploring the possibility for creating a Habitat Winterim course and trip before she moves on to the UW-Milwaukee campus. “It brings out the best in people. A lot of people do a lot of good in this world. Be part of it, and see the good.”
Working Hard for the (Travel) Money
Even a trip with a mission has costs, and fundraising was integral to get the campus group to the Habitat for Humanity site in Georgia.
Each student had to pay a $125 registration fee plus $20 for insurance to participate in the Collegiate Challenge, in part to offset their near-site housing costs. Gas and food also had to be factored in.
Some organization funding support was provided by the campus, but group members had to raise the difference. They worked volunteer shifts at the Culver’s restaurant on Johnson Street and held a 50-50 raffle on campus. Dovetailing on a half-price sale at the local Habitat ReStore, the group held a bake sale and raised an additional $250.
“I was so honored and humbled to help,” said Habitat for Humanity of Fond du Lac County Executive Director Paul Osterholm. “Kudos to them. Kate is an ambassador for life…her kids all volunteer in the community. That’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: how students at this age are exposed to what it feels like to give back, and they have another 40 or 50 years to give back to their communities.”
The UW-Fond du Lac students already are living out Osterholm’s prediction by regularly showing up for a Tuesday morning shift at a Habitat build site on Fourth Street in Fond du Lac. Other volunteers at the site tend to be in their 60s, Osterholm said, and have been impressed with the university volunteers’ building techniques.
“They talk to each other with mutual respect,” Osterholm said. “It doesn’t take much to get involved and stay involved to make a difference in the community and the world.”