Hammer Time!

Throughout this year, Out & About is profiling local volunteers and the programs in which they serve. The series is being developed in cooperation with the State Office of Volunteerism, and we hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents. For information about volunteering opportunities through the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.org.

Habitat for Humanity volunteers build 30-40 homes per year in Delaware for those in need

Dozens of Habitat for Humanity volunteers gathered on Legislative Mall in Dover last month to start building a house. And then they took it down.

The annual event—dubbed “Framing Frenzy”—was all for show, but its purpose was hardly theatrical.

Framing Frenzy serves a dual purpose, says Joceyln Tice, interim development director and grant administrator at Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, one of three Habitat units in the state. It not only raises awareness of the need for affordable housing throughout the state, but it also highlights the contributions volunteers make to providing that housing.

“It’s an awesome organization,” says volunteer Bill Taylor, 64, a retired senior superintendent for a commercial construction business in Maryland before moving to Ocean View about two years ago to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren. “There’s nothing like the feeling you get from giving back to the community and helping people in need.”

Most weeks, Taylor spends Wednesday and Saturday working on Habitat projects for the Sussex County chapter. Sometimes he’s just cutting boards and hammering nails but he’s now putting his supervisory experience to good use as “house leader” for a home now under construction in West Rehoboth. In this role, he has to make sure all the other volunteers have something to do, and that they know how to do it.

Statewide, Habitat builds about 30 to 40 new homes a year, 12 to 15 in both New Castle and Sussex and the rest in Kent County. In addition, Habitat volunteers and staff help needy homeowners with renovation projects. This includes building ramps to provide accessibility for handicapped residents. Volunteers also participate in community cleanups and operate ReStore shops, which sell building supplies and gently used appliances, furniture and housewares, in Prices Corner, Middletown, Dover and Lewes. 

Jimmy Carter’s Impact

Founded in 1976, Habitat now works in nearly 1,400 communities nationwide and in about 70 countries. In the 1980s, support from former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, who participated in numerous construction projects, helped build the organization’s reputation. Overall, Habitat has helped more than 13 million people achieve strength, stability and independence through safe, decent and affordable shelter.

Volunteers take a break from Framing Frenzy to pose for the camera. Photo Anthony Santoro

One of the next individuals to move into a Habitat-built home will be Juliette Main, a 34-year-old accounting specialist at the Delaware Technical Community College’s Terry Campus in Dover. The framing put up for show on Legislative Mall is now in Frederica, where Main’s new home is being built.

Living in a cramped apartment with four children, ages 3 to 7, the single mother found out about Habitat while attending a Downtown Dover event just before Halloween. She picked up some candy for her kids at the Habitat table, then decided to fill out an application form.

“I went through hardships I had no control over,” she says, explaining struggles that began when she was out of work after her twin sons, now 5 ½, were born three months prematurely. Two years later, her daughter was born. Then she was divorced and filed for bankruptcy.

“I was turned down by other organizations [when looking for housing]. Habitat was my last chance,” she says.

Once her application was approved in the spring, Main embraced her Habitat commitment. She’s taking the required classes on home ownership, budgeting, financial planning and related topics, and she’s building up the “sweat equity” hours required of Habitat beneficiaries by handing out information about Habitat at community events like the one where she learned about the program. And she’s also picking up a hammer on weekends too, helping with construction of new homes for others, just like they will be helping with construction of her own home. Overall, Main says she will have to put in 250 sweat equity hours.

(Sweat equity requirements are set by the boards of directors of local Habitat units and can vary by location and the complexity of the project, says Nancy Greene, Habitat programs manager in Sussex County.)

A Home in Time for Christmas

If all goes according to schedule, Main and her children will be in her new home by the end of the year. “I’m looking forward to the security, having a house right down the street from where my children will be going to school, giving them a better future,” she says. “It will be a nice Christmas.”

In all three counties, Habitat units have a core group of volunteers who regularly turn out for construction work and community cleanups.

“We have about 35 regulars, but they don’t turn out on the same day. Most times, we get 15 or 20,” says Mark LaFlamme, neighborhood revitalization coordinator in Sussex County.

Supplementing those groups are participants in the AmeriCorps program, a national community service initiative whose members commit to a year of volunteer work. For the Framing Frenzy, groups affiliated with AmeriCorps, including the Reading Assist Institute, the Ministry of Caring and the Delaware State Parks Veterans Corps, sent their volunteers to help with the build, Greene said.

While AmeriCorps volunteers tend to be younger—recent college graduates or students taking a “gap year” off from their studies—their age span can be wide and their experiences diverse.

“The oldest AmeriCorps member I’ve had is 77. I’ve had retired lawyers. One was a retired high school teacher who wasn’t ready to sit at home,” Greene says. “And we’ve had some who are in midlife transitions, who have just left the military, or displaced homemakers, volunteering for us so they could gain work credentials.”

In addition, Tice says, many businesses see spending a day working on a Habitat project as an ideal opportunity to combine team-building with community service.

“We get airmen from Dover Air Force Base, businesses, groups from 18 churches in Kent County, and some college sororities and fraternities,” she says.

Some volunteers will travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to work on Habitat homes.

In March, a dozen students from the University of California at San Marcos passed up the chance to soak up some sun on spring break and traveled to Wilmington, where they spent time insulating a rowhouse on North Jefferson Street and helping on other projects in Wilmington and Middletown.

“For me, it’s a perfect mix between being a tourist and helping out the community,” said Jocelyn Molano, a senior who helped organize the trip.

Habitat’s New Castle County unit usually hosts eight to 10 groups of out-of-town volunteers a year, and the student group traveled the greatest distance by far, according to Kevin Smith, Habitat executive director for New Castle County.

Habitat, Smith says, relies heavily on volunteers, both local and from out of town. It especially encourages participation by the young both high school and college studentsbecause, Smith says, “it’s very important for us as a feeder pattern. We go from youth, to college age, to young adult and up the ranks. We’ve even got volunteers in their 80s. It’s important for us to keep renewing the generations.”

Judy Gilmore of Dover didn’t start volunteering for Habitat until after she turned 65, but she knew a bit about construction from having worked for years in new home sales for a real estate developer.

“I had done pretty much all I could do around my own house, and I thought it was time for me to build for someone else,” she says. She volunteers two days a week for the Central Delaware unit, spending Wednesdays on construction projects and Thursdays helping staff the ReStore in Dover.

“I was laying sod this morning,” she said after completing a recent shift. “It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do a lot of this work.”

But every step in construction is important, she says. “We lay floor joists and subfloors, brace the walls on the first floor, then lay the joists and subfloor for the second floor, then the walls, then we put the roof on,” she says.

After electricians and plumbers do their work, the volunteers come back and install the flooring, kitchen cabinets and doors.

“It’s kind of nice. We always get to meet the family that’s going to live in the house,” Gilmore says. “It’s nice to know you can help somebody get into a home of their own, and show them how to take care of it.”

To Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity

Individuals and groups are welcome. Training is provided, but volunteers must be at least 17 years old to work on construction sites.

For Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, contact Tim Bailey at tbailey@centraldelawarehabitat.org or 226-2366 x 112.  For Habitat for Humanity New Castle County, contact Maritza Martinez at mmartinez@habitatncc.org or 652-0365. For Sussex County Habitat for Humanity, contact Courtney Tull at volunteer@sussexcountyhabitat.org or 855-1153 x 216.

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