Kristina Zurla

At the ripe old age of 32, I found myself in the midst of a mini-midlife crisis of sorts. Nothing seemed to be going my way. I was heartbroken and depressed, facing an uncertain career outlook in a terrible economy and looking for a cure for my ailing spirit. I found it in the wide open spaces of Montana, where the sky really is bigger. I found it through a week of sweat, bruises, blisters and tired muscles—and through a group of amazing people. This one-week “vacation” was anything but restful; it was a labor of love with Habitat for Humanity. I helped build four homes under the blazing Montana sun, with the majesty of the mountains and the greater power of God all around me.

 

I came across Habitat’s Web site accidentally and was drawn to the “Global Village” section, which provides information about projects around the world that help provide affordable housing to those in need. I signed up for Montana’s Gallatin Valley and was joined by 25 others from across the country, ranging in age from 16 to 57. I had no idea what I was in for.

Most people associate Habitat for Humanity with its most vocal spokesperson and famous volunteer, Jimmy Carter, but every U.S. president after him has also participated in a Habitat “build” (as the projects are called), along with countless others from all walks of life. Its “World Leaders Build” boasts 28 heads of state and heads of government from 26 nations that participate. So I knew I was in good company.

When I deplaned in Montana, I was greeted by the team leader, Amy Fleischauer, a spirited and enthusiastic Gen Xer from New York City, where she had a career as a social worker. A welcome dinner at a local church followed our arrival, and there I met the people with whom I would work side by side for the next week. The local construction supervisor on the project, Dave Stone, gave us an introduction and a pep talk. While there were some “veterans” of Habitat trips on this build, most of us had never even held a power tool before, so the prospect of actually building a house was intimidating, to say the least. But we were in good hands. His passion drove us to accomplish things we never thought we could. After working in commercial construction for many years, he told us, it was with Habitat that he found his true calling. “If this were a perfect world,” he said, “we wouldn’t need an organization like Habitat. It’s my personal mission to eliminate substandard housing. Everyone deserves a simple, decent place to live.” Stone has been working for Habitat for the past seven years, the last two in Gallatin Valley. While not rich in a monetary sense, he is rich in spirit. “This is where I was meant to be. I have found my calling,” he said.

The first command for every team member is: be a blessing. Participants are responsible for travel and housing costs to their destination and also provide a small donation.

Each day of the build, Stone gave us a brief lecture about his experiences with Habitat, and the partner families who would receive homes like the ones we were building. Like many people, I was under the impression the recipients were welfare cases, who were given these homes free. That is not the case. Homeowner families are chosen according to need. Habitat does not discriminate according to race, religion or ethnic group. Partner families are expected to put in 250 hours of their own “sweat equity” in the construction and to pay their own mortgages. The houses are sold at no profit. Donations for much of the building materials and volunteer labor allow these families to acquire the homes at a good discount and with no interest on their mortgages. Individuals do not have to be in top physical fitness to participate. Stone said the projects can accommodate individuals of any age or ability. Even the blind have put in their sweat equity to receive a home. The Habitat houses are literally no-frills dwellings. They have no vaulted ceilings, fireplaces or marble countertops. Rather, they are small and comfortable homes that allow families to have a place of their own.

Habitat volunteers are expected to work, and work we did: seven hours a day on the construction site in conditions that are not for high-maintenance types. Food was plentiful and good, but special orders were not on the menu. Local church groups provided most of the fare, much of which was homemade. Our accommodations in Montana State University’s dorms were comfortable, but on other Habitat trips they range from camping to staying at hostels, inns, church basements, local hotels or homes in the host community. Our team leader made every attempt to ensure we were comfortable, safe and well fed during the trip. Everyone looked out for everyone else, sharing sunscreen, Band-Aids, water and snacks. We spent our free time in the evenings exploring the community’s many treasures. Though we were exhausted, the beauty of the mountains that surrounded us and the spirit of the people restored our energy.

There was certainly no shortage of work for anyone. Our team did everything from pouring concrete to hanging siding, roofing, framing and painting. Despite the fact that I work out regularly, my body, used to spending days slouched at a computer, rebelled. Merely walking back and forth across the myriad large rocks littering every inch of the ground around the job site made for some very sore feet. But Stone’s encouragement made me accomplish things I never thought I could do. I have become quite adept at hanging aluminum siding and no longer fear for my life when using a power saw.

More than anything, however, I learned the most from the people on the trip. Our Global Village group was met by a team of vagabond retirees and modern-day hippies who called themselves “Care-A-Vaners.” In recreational vehicles and vans they roam the country from one construction site to the next. I got to talk with one of these amazing folks, 79-year-old Sam Monroe, as he shoveled heavy loads of pebbles with me and insisted on doing this back-breaking work instead of an easier task. A veteran of three wars, Monroe was an inspiration. He spends seven months of the year traveling with his wife and a convoy of fellow Habitat Care-A-Vaners who have become like family. “As long as God has given me a healthy body, I will continue to work,” he said. “My wife and I get more out of this than the people receiving these homes, no question about it. It’s a blessing to us.”

Others in my team were equally inspiring, sharing colorful stories and rich personal experiences. “We get paid by knowing we can effect change,” said one teammate, Carol Goepferd, who does administrative work in Walnut Creek, Calif. “Nobody can say one person can’t make a difference. This is proof of that.”

Jill Petersen, a native of Wisconsin who works as a marketing manager in Chicago, was also looking for something different and spiritually fulfilling to do with her summer vacation. “It’s amazing what was accomplished in such a short amount of time with such a diverse group of people,” she said. “We were all on a level playing field, regardless of age, experience or background. At least for one week, everyone kept their egos in check, focusing only on giving their best effort. The experience is open to anyone and everyone who wants to make a difference.”

After a week of hard work, we were treated to a day of fun at Yellowstone National Park and stayed in a comfortable lodge, where bison roamed outside our windows and the predictable gush of Old Faithful and dozens of other geysers created one of the most unusual yet beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. Amy Fleischauer remarked, during our last dinner, that it was no coincidence that each of us had chosen to share this adventure; it was in God’s plan. “We all came to do this for different reasons, but seeing all these different people, from all over the country, come together is incredible. We all have something to learn from one another. We may not know what that is right now, but we will find out some day.”

Kristina Zurla, who lives in Chicago, is a professional writer/reporter in the financial industry.