Twenty Castleton students, faculty and staff gathered among a handful of volunteers and staff from the Blount County Habitat for Humanity. Tears streamed from underneath the sunglasses of the students as they realized it was time to say goodbye to the Habitat affiliate that adopted them for the week prior.
It was a week that they would never forget.
At 6 a.m. on April 6, members of the Habitat Club loaded into three vans and traveled 15 hours to Maryville, Tenn. for an Alternative Spring Break trip to work with the Blount County Habitat for Humanity affiliate. As they headed south, temperatures rose, the grass got greener and wildlife flourished.
Upon arrival in the Volunteer State, everyone immediately noticed a culture change. They were greeted by site contacts Susan Hughes and Bill Kilgore at the entrance to the First United Methodist Church, where they would be staying for the week. All felt the effects of southern hospitality instantly — despite the 11:30 p.m. arrival.
“How ya’ll doing?” Hughes asked, exciting those in the group who admire a southern accent.
“You’re from Vermont? Oh no, we are going to have a hard time understanding you,” added another churchgoer.
The group stayed in two of the youth programming rooms at the church; 14 girls in one room and six guys in the other. With only two showers and a limited supply of warm water, students knew that we were in for an interesting week.
Looking past the absence of some of the luxuries they left back in Vermont, the group was ready to dedicate our time to serving others.
The typical workweek for Habitat for Humanity is Monday through Friday, which allowed for a day trip to Nashville on Sunday. The Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Zoo, and dinner at BB King’s were highlights.
By 8:30 a.m. the following morning, all 20 students were awake, showered, and en route to Norwood Village, the site of the homes they would be working on. There were introductions to Habitat employees and site supervisors who discussed safety issues, expectations and the work that needed to be done over the course of the week.
‘Wear your nametag’ and ‘Slow and Steady’ were two of the itemsvstressed each morning.
Under the supervision of the contracted staff on site, students were able to try a variety of different construction projects throughout the week. They worked on a deck, finished a shed, put roof trusses on two homes and several other minor construction jobs.
“Everyone on the trip worked hard every day and tried new things that were outside of their comfort zones,” said Habitat Club President Molly Stratton.
One of the houses being worked on belonged to Darrell and Becky Dixon. Darrell finished his required hours of ‘sweat equity’ while we were there and proudly waved his paper that proved it. For him, completing those hours meant that he was one step closer to becoming an actual homeowner.
To receive a Habitat home, potential homeowners are required to complete 500 hours of ‘sweat equity’ and a series of financial preparation and management courses before he or she can move in.
Each day, local volunteers donate lunch for all of the people on site working with Habitat. Students expected peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but were surprised to be served full meals ranging from fried chicken to pulled pork and chicken salad. The hospitality made it apparent that the community members truly appreciated the efforts put forth by the volunteers.
“The people of Blount County are some of the nicest individuals that I have ever met,” said Stratton.
The trip to Maryville was special for students because they were given the opportunity to extend volunteer efforts by participating in events and jobs not typically provided to students volunteering with Habitat on spring break.
Along with operating a fully functional affiliate that constructs an average of 10 homes a year, the Blount County HFH also operates a ReStore that sells new and gently-used home goods, clothing and other assorted items to the public at a low cost. All of the proceeds from the ReStore are donated directly to Habitat and used to help purchase building materials.
Each day, some students spent the morning at the ReStore helping to sort and price items, unload donations and even the impossible task of assembling a swing set that was lacking parts.
“Chelsea (Paola) and I worked side by side with two older women to decide what donations to sell and what to throw away. I thought it was very nice and trusting of them to let two girls from Vermont come in and basically decide whether they would make money or not,” said KT Pellegrino.
Monday night, the group attended a graduation ceremony honoring four families who completed 100 hours of classes to prepare them to successfully manage a budget and prepare for the transition to homeownership.
“Is it more important to own a cell phone or a home? That is a question that you will be faced with, but we are here to help you through and remind you that you want to be a homeowner,” said one of the directors of the class to the graduates.
The Castleton students were the first college students to attend such an event in the history of the Blount County affiliate’s existence.
On Tuesday and Thursday, they mingled with several Maryville residents at the “Welcome Table” community dinners. These dinners are prepared by Chef Amelia Geis and served to anyone, especially those who may not have access to a meal elsewhere. The Castleton students helped in the kitchen, cleaned dishes and served guests.
“At the end of the week, one of the women that I connected with at the dinners gave me her phone number and address so that we can keep in touch,” said Pellegrino.
As the returning treasurer of the Habitat Club, I can say that our ASB trip to Maryville has been the most meaningful, educational, and motivational trip that I have attended thus far. The gratitude and appreciation given to us by the entire community made saying goodbye near impossible.
“This trip was by far the best I have attended and I really hope to make it back there to reconnect with our new friends,” Stratton said.
“I am confident in saying that while I was in Maryville, I was able to meet some of the smartest, kindest, and more helpful individuals that I will probably ever have the fortunate chance of meeting. Now that I am back in Vermont, I have stayed in touch and look forward to visiting them in the summer,” said Pellegrino.