Gulf Coast Community Trip - Donna's Journal
Donna Mulder - Thrivent magazine editor, Appleton, WI
It's been a long day of travel, but also a very smooth day. There were no glitches with flights, luggage or people! Five of us traveled from Appleton, flying out of Milwaukee. Six traveled from Minneapolis, including Julie, who started her day in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 11 of us met up in the Memphis airportseveral of us meeting in person for the first timefor the final leg of the journey to the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. Our 12th and final team member came in from Michigan about 20 minutes behind us.
Habitat for Humanity sent a couple vans to pick us up and transport us to Yankie Stadium, which would become our home for the week.
As we drove to Yankie Stadium, we couldn't help but be moved by what we saw. It's certainly nowhere near the devastation of three years ago, but it's still sobering to see homes and businesses boarded up, and foundations with no homes sitting on them. There were lots of driveways to nowhere. And on the flip side, we saw a number of houses that had obviously been rebuiltand at a much higher level. Some of them looked like houses on stilts. And to think that this is only the beginning of what we will see, hear and experience personally this week.
When we pulled up to Yankie Stadium around 5 p.m., the first thing I noticed was a domelike structure. At first I thought that's where we would be staying. But then we walked into a fenced in area toward a couple of bunkhouses where we would be sleeping for the weekguys in one; women in another. Under the stadium bleachers, we found the kitchen/dining center and a great room, where people could watch TV, use computers, play games and generally kick back and relax.
It was here that we met up with the two other Thrivent Builds teamsmembers from New York and Pennsylvaniathat also were in Biloxi for the week to work on houses. I enjoyed seeing Duane, who we'd featured in Thrivent magazine a year earlier, and meeting Steve, who I'd exchanged e-mails and phone calls with for a story. And it's always fun to meet up with our members and know that we're all here for the same purposeto make a difference! As I looked around, it really hit me the difference Thrivent Financial for Lutherans makes with it's commitment to help build homes in the Gulf Coast region. And I feel really blessed to be an employee of this great organization! Also joined us at Yankie Stadium this week is a group of young adults from another Habitat affiliate. It's always neat to meet people and hear the stories of what has brought them here.
After dinner, Matt from the local Habitat affiliate led our orientation. What a great sense of humor he's going to bring to the week! He obviously loves his job and working with volunteers. We followed orientation up with a team meetingwhich was a great way to kick off the week. It was a time of sharing our reasons for being here, our fears and how we hope to be touched. It's really all about team, and I'm thrilled to be part of such a great team. I don't really know most of our team members very well, and I'm looking forward to getting to know people better.
Tomorrow we head to the build site where we learn what we will be doing this week. Personally, I'm a little nervous about what we're going to be doing. I don't exactly have any construction skills, and I'm not too keen on heights either. But I'm certainly looking forward to getting out and doing what we came here for.
Whew! What a fabulous day! We were up early todaymost of us by 6 a.m. I think it was the excitement of heading to the job site and finding out what we were going to be doing.
But our first task of the day didn't start at the work sitebut rather at Yankie Stadium. It was to pack our lunches. A table was set up with all the fixings for a great bag lunch, which then went with us to our worksite.
At 7 a.m. we sat down to breakfast, and we found out where we would be working for the week. We were headed for Convent Street in Pascagoula, about a half hour drive from where we're staying in Biloxi, where we were going to work on the framing of a house. The 12 of us piled in the van for our journey to the job site. We crossed the new bridge from Biloxi to Gulfport, while seeing the remnants of the old bridge decimated by Katrina.
We hoped to be on site by 8 a.m., but it took us a little longer than we expected to get there. Our first glimpse of the corner lot was a brick foundation that was ready for us to build upon. Our site supervisor Bryce gathered us together for introductions and to give us the lay of the land, the schedule we would be operating under and some safety guidelines. Bryce also introduced us to the other Habitat people on site, Bill and Victor. We also met Arlecia, a soon-to-be homeowner, although not of the house we were building. She joined us on site to work toward fulfilling her hours for her commitment to Habitat. It was awesome to work with Arlecia, who was obviously very excited about getting into her own home. She's planning to take ownership in a couple of weeks and will be living with her mom and younger brother.
Our team split into two groupsone group setting floor joists and the other doing demolition work on prefab walls that had lots of rotting wood. I was assigned the task to helping move the floor trusses into place. I'm not sure that I really liked the maggots, termites and cockroaches we encountered in the process, but I have to admit, the little lizards were kinda cute! I have to admit, I did jump a bit at the sight of my first cockroach. Oh, and let's not forget the fire ants that had taken up residence on the end of one of the joists as well!
While it was incredibly hotwe were drinking water non-stopit also was a very productive day. We got all the floor joists in and the decking down. And with the demolition work done, too, we are in a perfect position to put walls together and up tomorrow. It was satisfying and gratifying to watch it come together. It's really interesting how a team of people who don't really know each other, but who share a passion for making a difference, can get so much accomplished in just one day.
We knocked off for the day about 3:30 so we could get back to Yankie Stadium in time for a bus tour of the region. It was a quiet ride homequite the opposite of our morning journey. Perhaps the heat and work of the day had caught up with us. I think we'll sleep well tonight.
The bus tour really helped put the devastation of Hurricane Katrina into perspective. The driver shared many stories with us of the days after Katrina, and of the progress being made. We saw the memorial for Hurricane Camille, which devastated the area in 1969the biggest one the area had seen to that point. And we saw the Katrina memorial. A glass casing, part of the memorial, was filled with remnants of things found along the coast. Seeing those personal belongings really brings home the reality of the loss.
We saw pine trees common to this area that make not survive due to major erosion problems. It's too soon to tell, but they don't look good. Casinos and condos areor will bereplacing the many beachfront homes that are gone. Tall grass covered some lots, and in many yards, the slab of the foundation was all that remained. It's hard to imagine the beautiful homes that once were there.
I know that my time here is serving God and those in need of homes. But that really hit home tonight when in a video we watched tonight, one of the volunteers said: "A great day is when I've had the opportunity to put my faith into action. Today was a great day."
I echo thatToday was a great day!
We weren't up quite as early this morning as yesterdayI think yesterday's hard work may have something to do with that. Still, a few of us were up early enough to get our lunches packed by 6:30 a.m., giving us a half hour before breakfast. We decided to spend it walking the track, which was great for limbering up sore muscles and getting to know one another.
Back on site, we got right to work finishing up nailing down the decking to the floor joists. That took a couple of hours at best. It was kinda cool because there literally were a few instances when it seemed the hammers were all moving in unison. You could hear them hit at the exact same moment. You couldn't have planned it.
But I think that for me the remainder of the day was simply the best. I have worked at a few Thrivent Builds sites, but I've never had the chance to do framing. Heck, I didn't even know what really to expect. But we started with the exterior walls, moving them into position and then up. We then built the remaining walls we neededI now know enough to be dangerous! But we all played a role in building the additional exterior walls and putting them up. Just before putting up the last outside wall, we moved all the inside walls into the house and started putting them up. It must have been about 3 or 3:30, and the intensity was building. Everyone was moving in different parts of the house to get ALL the interior walls up and level before we left the site at 4 p.m.
Mission accomplished! Our dance floor was turned into a house with walls and rooms!
As I walked through the stud walls that afternoon, I began to imagine a family living thereperhaps Mom making dinner in the kitchen, kids doing homework at the dining room table or playing in the living room. And I had a sudden realization. This isn't just a house that I am blessed to help build... this is a HOME!
Tonight was a lot of fun, too. We headed over to Camp Victor in Ocean Springs (the future home of the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate) for a southern dinner prepared by our very own Thrivent Financial representatives, Terry King. Terry had a little help from a few friends and Thrivent Financial Partner Dave Mietzner. It was an awesome meal of chicken and sausage gumbo, crawfish cheesecake and salad. The bread pudding for dessert was out of this worldthanks to Terry's wife! We so appreciated the evening out with Terry and Daveand their southern hospitality.
Tonight's team devotion was on calling. I really do feel called to be in this place, doing this work. And it's neat to see the work God is doing through each of us on the team, despite the limited talents and abilities of a few of us! I think I'll sleep well tonight.
I can't believe it's yet another perfect day of weather for building. With temperatures in the mid-80s and humidity that wasn't too bad, we divided and conquered several tasks. While one group worked at putting up the wall sheeting, another worked on the top wall plates. And yet a third group (that would include me!) worked on nailing the wall sheeting to the studs. If I recall correctly, before we're done with the nailing tomorrow, we'll have more than 1,600 nails in just one wall, much less all four! Personally, I don't think I've ever pounded so many nails in my life much less in one day. We'll see how the arm feels tomorrow. I think I'm glad I was proactive and took some pain reliever before I headed to the work site for the day!
Today Kim, a future homeowner, joined us on the site. With three more days of work, she'll have all her work hours in. Her home is nearing completion, and she is so excited to move in with her husband and three daughters. She was very willing to share her story with usshe's an incredible woman who has gone through a lot in life and is coming out on top. Kim is so passionate about what Habitat for Humanity stands formaking home ownership a reality instead of just a dream for many people. She may have her hours complete by Saturday, but in her words, she's not done volunteering with Habitat. She will continue to give of her time and skills on the build site, helping others achieve the dream that soon will be her reality.
After a productive day on siteonly a few thumbs hit and a few scrapeswe headed back to clean up. Dinner tonight was a local place well-known for its barbecue and atmosphereThe Shed. The food was fantasticespecially the barbecue chicken, beef and pork, and the potato salad! Bryce and his fiance Kendall joined us for dinner. And our friends from the two other Thrivent Financial member teams were there with us, too. We found out just how well-known The Shed is when camera crews from the Travel Channel turned up. They started moving from table to table, interviewing and taping a segment for the show Food Paradise. Most of us were on camera, and several of us were asked questions as well. So, tune into Food Paradise the end of November and you may see someone you know! That definitely was a highlight to the trip.
It was the last day of our build. Every day, it's been a little harder to get up. I think the weariness of the physical labor and the heat is taking its toll. But even with that, several of us did our usual mile lap on the track before starting our day.
It truly was a bittersweet day as we worked hard to achieve all we could. Driving up to the house this morning, I was still in awe of what we accomplished in just three daysand we still had today to go. Today, we almost completed the nailing of the sheeting to the house--only about 20 nails left on one wall and about a quarter of the back wall. We certainly learned the art of patience today as we hammeredwe had different nails that didn't seem to work quite as well. Couldn't have anything to do with the people doing the nailing!
But the truly exciting part today was when several of our teammates made like chimps in the high regions of the houseputting up the roof trusses. We all gathered around to see the end truss go up and get nailed into place. By day's end, our crew had about 2/3 of the trusses in place. (For the record, I kept nailing. I don't do heights very well!) But simply amazing is the only way I can describe it.
Things became quite somber around 3 when we started cleaning up our tools for the days. Bryce broke out the markers and encouraged each of us to write a message to the homeowners. We wrote our messages on the studssharing words of inspiration and Scripture passages. The family won't see the messages, of course, but I hope they will be able to feel the love that went into building their home. We ended our day the same way we started each day on the build sitewith a prayer for the family and for the safety we were given that week on the work site.. But even with the final amen, no one seemed to want to leave the site. Similar to many of our team meetings throughout the week, no one seemed to want to leave. Some sat, others stood and all of us, at some point, walked through all the rooms of the house. I thought aboutand prayed forthe family that would live here. I prayed they would find peace and comfort here; that this is the new beginning they need.
Back at Yankie Stadium, several future homeowners, including Kim and two of her daughters, joined us for dinner. Again it was an opportunity to learn more about the people who are working hard to enjoy the reality of home ownership.
There are few words that can describe the experience of working on a Thrivent Builds site. But I highly recommend it!
It goes without saying that every one of us would have showed up at the site this morningand next weekif we could have. Saying good-bye is never easy. After a final breakfast at the Waffle Housethere are so many of them in the area and we just had to experience it!we headed to the airport where the good-byes would begin. The teammates that we barely knew as we started the week had become friends.
This week in Biloxi is definitely one of the most memorable weeks of my life. As I have been all week, I'm still at a loss for the words to describe my experience. It's really hard to describe the feeling involved with knowing the impact your work has made on a family. I've been blessed with a home for many years. I can't imagine the need to start over as many of these families have done. Yet the courage and the tenacity that they display are incredible.
The blisters, the scrapes, the sore joints experienced this week--they all pale in comparison to the difference this is going to make to whomever is the recipient of this home; they all pale in comparison to what this family endured during Hurricane Katrina and the days, weeks and even the years that have followed it.
I've been pondering the question this weekat what point does a house become a home? Before going to Biloxi this week, and actually being a part of such a special build, I probably would have told you it was when the homeowner moved in because it's the family and the dynamics there that make it a home. But I'm not sure of that anymore. That wasn't just a house we were buildingit is someone's dream, someone's future, perhaps the one factor that can give them the better life they are hungering for. It's so much more than a houseit's a home.
I am a changed person from my week in Biloxi. I'm not quite sure yet what that means, but I do know I look forward to future trips, future opportunities to make a difference in the life of someone who needs it. And I hope it's something I can share with those around me, especially those who haven't had the chance to experience a build trip like this. And the best part is, I didn't need any special skills to work on this buildI came with what I had and, when placed with the rest of the team, it was exactly what was needed to get the job done. God takes each of our offerings, when given for the right purpose, and makes them good!
But whether it's a Thrivent Builds Worldwide trip, or a local Thrivent Builds project in my local community, it all makes a difference. I'm proud to work for an organization that not just allows me as an employee and a member but encourages me to put others first, to see to the needs of those around me. I've been on the receiving end of that generosity, and it's with great pleasure that I give back.
Team Biloxiit was a fabulous week with all of you. Thanks for the memories!