by Monica M. Walk
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. 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.
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 got along 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.”
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 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. 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.
“I enjoy this type of work, so it was a perfect fit,” he added. “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
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
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 bus load 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.
“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 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.”