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June 19, 2004: H is for Hands

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I don't know when I first heard about Habitat for Humanity. All I know is that it has been years since I first saw those words and found out what it was all about. It's an organization dedicated to providing affordable housing for people who couldn't otherwise afford a place of their own. This isn't government-subsidized apartments these are houses houses built by volunteers and the people who are lucky enough to own them. They are not given away the people who get the house must put in something like 500 hours of their own work on either their house or other houses, and they do have to pay a mortgage. But because the mortgage is interest free, and because so much of the work of building that house is done through donated materials and volunteer work, the house ends up a much less expensive property than it otherwise might be. Habitat is a pretty amazing organization, and it's something I've wanted to get involved with for a very long time. But things keep getting in the way. First I did too much traveling. Then I couldn't find a Habitat group building in my area. Then I did too much traveling again, and then I just plain got busy.

It looked like things might change when, a few years ago, a Habitat chapter was started in our town. I didn't want to volunteer to be on any of the committees because frankly, after the SPCA, I was sick of being on committees, and also I knew I wouldn't have the time. But I put my name down on the list to be a volunteer, and anxiously awaited word on their progress as they started down the long road of finding a site, finding a recipient, and all the other little things that have to be done before an actual house can be built. There's a lot of us who've been in the same boat for quite a while now, asking around, trying to find out just what was up and how we could help and hitting dead ends at every turn.

But suddenly, opportunity presented itself. One of the members of our church has been a general contractor for years the type of wonderfully gentle man who works marvelously with volunteers. On a whim he applied for a job he saw advertised, which turned out to be working as a site manager for the Habitat in Sacramento. As an added plus, he happens to be the dad of one of my coworkers a coworker at an office full of people who have all also expressed interest in getting involved in Habitat themselves.

A few phone calls later we had a date. As a matter of fact, somehow we ended up with two dates one this month and one the next. We weren't sure what we would be doing, and we all had extremely different levels of skill (from 'lots' to 'next to none'), but we were assured that wouldn't matter. All we had to do was show up and be ready to work.

So show up we did, this morning, bright and early, at the designated site in Sacramento. It's an existing house that is getting some significant remodeling done due to damage from weather and neglect. Our jobs today were to pour the back patio, finish up some of the interior wiring, and lay the french drain in the back yard.

Remember how very much fun Richard and I had last summer when we filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with rocks and dirt and carted them to our backyard, over and over and over? Guess what I did for several hours this morning! Yep, that's right. I filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with extremely heavy wet gloppy cement and carted it to the backyard to dump it into untidy heaps in the designated area, so two other volunteers could smooth it out and transform it into a perfectly smooth patio. And then this afternoon I dumped shovel after shovel full of pea gravel into wheelbarrows, which were then carted into the backyard and poured into a very long and deep ditch, into which we had just positioned a very long length of flexible piping full of evenly spaced holes, which was to become a french drain.

In the middle of the heaving and the shoveling and the carting, there was a brief stint inside the house, where I got to go around and check every single beam to see if the holes for the wires and pipes were far enough away from the outer edge. If they were not I got to pound spiky nail stops into the beams so that when the drywall installers came they would not accidentally pierce a pipe or electrical cord and cause all manner of problems later down the line. I got to do this because I am a huge wimp and do not do well on things that require being on top of a ladder, and so everyone else stood on ladders and installed flooring in the attic around the heating and air conditioning unit, or stood on ladders and did electrical kits for all the light fixtures.

It was hard work, mostly (except for installing the nail protectors because how hard is it, really, to smack a spiky metal plate into a wall with a large hammer?), and physically tiring. It didn't help that by the afternoon it was getting pretty hot and there was a lot of dust and grime and pea gravel and bits of wood, but somehow it was still fun. I learned something new today about how to ensure proper drainage in a yard, and how much skill laying cement really can require (a lot more than I ever want to possess). When we were finally done I was tired and sore and impossibly grungy and yet somehow I felt a little bit exhilarated by it nonetheless, because I know that it was all to benefit some stranger who I will never meet. And I also cannot wait until next month when my coworkers and our spouses and friends and anyone else we can scrounge up and I will don our grungiest shirts and jeans and baseball caps and arm ourselves with determination and as many bottles of water as we can carry, and go do this again.

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