Thirty people boarded a plane in Los Angeles, aiming for a tiny, impoverished town in rural Mississippi. We weighed our bags as a group before we left, spreading the hammers, levels, measuring tapes and school books around in an effort to cut the overweight fees. Staying on budget is a key to making the trip affordable to the 10 adults and 22 kids who had taken a week off school and work to build a home for Habitat for Humanity.
This would be the 34th home that this group from La Canada Presbyterian Church has helped build in the area since learning about Tutwiler, Miss., where the average income is about one-third of the national average, some 25 years ago.
Prior to Habitat's arrival, Tutwiler was best known for the brutal 1950s murder of Emmett Till, a black youth who had the nerve to talk to a white woman. Now, thanks to the donation of several acres of land and the time of hundreds of volunteers, it's a place where the privileged and impoverished work side by side to construct a neat community of homes within walking distance of a medical clinic and recreation center run by a group of Catholic nuns.
Danielle and Oscar Ellis soon will move into one of these homes--a pretty three bedroom house with a big yard for their four children. The couple, who are in their late 30s, have never before owned a home. Habitat was their only hope to escape an apartment in a bad area, that has no heat nor air conditioning, but costs them as much as the mortgage they'll have on the home they'll buy here, Danielle explained. To buy from Habitat, they need $500 in cash; must donate 500 hours of their "sweat equity"; and will take out a $45,000 loan.
The Ellis' greeted our group warmly. Danielle, who teaches abstinence classes at the local schools, likes these kids who have come to build, many of whom have been back year-after-year. Not only are they polite and hard working, they've forged bonds with the kids in the community, who come running out to greet us after Sunday services.
When not needed on the building site, the teenagers walk a block to the community center, where they help the local grade-schoolers with homework, play jump rope, basketball and checkers. When the center's not open, local kids mob the work site, looking for piggy-back rides, help fixing their bikes and just to talk and laugh with their visiting friends.
"We go down there to build a house, but it's really about building a partnership and relationship with the community," said Bob McGlashan, a La Canada real estate developer who has helped organize the trip for the past half-dozen years. "It happens a little more every year. We've built a bond where both of the communities learn about each other and grow from the experience."
The job, at first, seems overwhelming. There is nothing on the site but a concrete slab, poured a few months ago by a few dedicated members of the same group. It's been raining for 14 days prior to our arrival. The grass is wet, overgrown and filled with mosquitoes. Only McGlashan and one other dad, a Los Angeles lawyer, have enough building experience to plot out the footprint of the house and direct the kids and adult volunteers to start building. Habitat has an expert on site to help groups that have no building experience, but the neighbors pitch in too.
Bob's wife, Janice, mans the miter saw. Instructions are given and 22 kids swing into action, carrying lumber, gathering supplies and strapping on tool belts. The kids with past experience help those who are new. The adults grab the skill saws and nail guns. Within a day, the first wall goes up. The home miraculously begins to take shape.
By mid-week it's clear that while the schedule is tight, the framing we've come to do will get done in time to board a flight home at the end of the week. Meanwhile, I found myself feeling incredibly proud of this group of teenagers, who have left their selfish concerns, their television sets and their ipods, and have been working diligently; playing thoughtfully; showing tremendous maturity and respect for the people they'd come to help.
But two local teenagers stopped me to complain. "You're only here for a week?" one asks "Why just a week?"
"A week's not enough," he said. "We need a lot of houses built around here."
I know he's right. This tiny town of some 8,500 residents desperately needs homes and help. The houses we start will take two years to complete, largely because there's a shortage of volunteers and money for supplies. This community also needs money to operate the clinic and community center, which survive mainly on donations because few of their clients have insurance, and with an average annual income of $18,000, these families have little cash to spare.
If you know of a group that would like to help, contact Allison Patten, the director of the West Tallahatchie Habitat for Humanity. Her email address is email@example.com. Phone: 206-459-3974. I guarantee you that you'll get as much out of the experience as you put in.