This Spring Break, while many students are hitting the beaches of Mexico to rebuild peace of mind after midterms, the volunteers of Habitat for Humanity will head south to rebuild homes and lives.
Habitat for Humanity is an organization dedicated to helping provide homes for those who are victims of natural disaster or poverty. This year 94 Gustavus students are committed to building houses in one of three locations: Beaumont, TX, Corpus Christi, TX or Pensacola, FL.
“Beaumont and Corpus Christi are [suffering] from hurricane [Rita],” said Habitat Co-President Emily Hoel, a senior management major. “Beaches and stores are still closed because of the hurricane—a lot is still unavailable.” Pensacola, FL, on the other hand, is an area where there is a lot of poverty and lot of homeless families.
Upon arriving, the groups will begin work on sites that are in various states of completion. One group picks up where another left off the week before, and students commit to getting done whatever needs to get done. “Sometimes you are working on just one house, and sometimes the group is spread out over ten houses. … At this point [we] have no idea what we will be doing,” said Hoel.
This is not a source of anxiety, however. Other volunteers, such as construction experts, are always available on the site to train students.
“One year we had a retired framer who showed everyone the ropes, and there are also Habitat volunteers [who] are trained to teach us skills and walk around and help supervise,” said Kevin Matuseski, a junior communication arts/literature teaching major who spent the past two Spring Breaks volunteering with Habitat in New Orleans and is headed to Corpus Christi this year. “They really teach you a skill,” said Hoel. “It is really cool to be able to come back and say, ‘Hey, Dad, I can shingle a house now.’”
“I am really excited to gain new skills when it comes to working on houses. It’s a great group of people going, so I am looking forward to working with them. I think that its also going to be kind of a humbling experience,” said Bergit Nerheim, a sophomore communication studies major.
The students’ work schedule can be demanding. They wake up, get ready to work, arrive on the work site at 8:00 a.m. and continue until 4:00 p.m. The work, however, is part of the fun. “You do really get to know people, especially when you are working with them and you get to joke around with them,” said Matuseski.
Working on the sites is as much of a cultural experience as anything else. “You meet a lot more people and a lot more interesting things happen to you when you are going and serving than when you [are] just hanging out and looking at the sights,” said Matuseski. “When we were in New Orleans, we could kind of tell how [the homeowners] actually lived.” Habitat for Humanity also requires that potential homeowners work on the project, giving students the opportunity to meet them and hear their stories.
There is, however, a balanced mix of work and play. Evenings are free for the groups to sightsee or do as they please. Coordinators of the trip also allot a free day so students might have the chance to do a little relaxing or exploring. The group going to Corpus Christi plans to go on a dolphin watch, the Beaumont group looks forward to a canoe trip and the group going to Pensacola is partaking in one of most popular Spring Break pastimes: beach day. “Yes, you are working, but it’s also a trip,” said Hoel.
“Two favorite parts [of the trip] would be going and meeting fantastic people from Gustavus who I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet before, as well as working with great people you get to help … out. It’s [also] fun to hang out in warm place. It’s a fun time for just hanging out and doing some hard work,” said Lucas Neher, a junior environmental studies major. “[I’m] excited to take a break from school. I really have fun, I really enjoy construction, I have fun hanging out with awesome people from Gustavus. We have a lot of fun together. I really do view it as a break.”
The students are loading up vans early Saturday morning and heading out on an estimated 25-hour trip to the South. With any luck, loading the vans shouldn’t be too difficult, as students are encouraged to pack light. “[We are telling students] to bring one small bag and one [pair] of work clothes. … Those clothes are going to get very dirty at the end of the week,” said Hoel. When they get there, students will stay in various work camps or at churches. Meals are often provided picnic-style by various churches, and “businesses are really grateful that you are there, so they donate and give you discounts,” said Hoel. The entire trip costs about $300.
Although Hoel admits that “you come back exhausted,” the trip is worth it. “It’s a really great way for students to [give] back to the community during break. You see progress and it is amazing,” said Hoel.
“I really like the idea of vacationing with a purpose. [It is an opportunity] to go and see places you haven’t seen before, but also help people [who] need help, to contribute and do work in some way,” said Matuseski.