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Viewpoint: Habitat for Humanity experience helped build knowledge and a home

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opinion Cottage Grove,Minnesota 55016
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Viewpoint: Habitat for Humanity experience helped build knowledge and a home
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

It’s a unique experience volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Having no home repair or home building experience, it was both challenging and rewarding.


Last month, I traded in my Steno notebook for a pair of mismatched construction gloves and a painter’s apron full of screws and helped with an all-women build on a home in the Mississippi Dunes development in Cottage Grove. I visited the site in July for an unrelated story and was worried I might be laying shingles in 100-degree temps. Luckily, our weather was manageable and we worked on the interior.

The group of women was mostly members of the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce or related to area business owners. Although most of us had no prior home-building experience, the cause behind the work was our motivating factor. The dozen of us split into two groups — my group ventured to the second floor while the other group headed for the garage, not knowing that we were all about to hang drywall.

“OK, ladies, grab a T-square and let’s go upstairs,” said Marcia, our site supervisor for the day.

Now, I’ve never used a power drill or, before this, spent more than 10 minutes on a home repair. And as of last week, I had no idea that there is a difference between nails and screws. So I certainly did not know what a T-square was, and I was not alone. We all looked at one another, looked around, and looked back at one another.

“Marcia,” one of us yelled out in a panic. “We don’t know what a T-square is.”

A little lesson in home repair: a T-square is a tool used to draw horizontal lines and to cut drywall, and, in fact, is shaped like a T.

Once upstairs, and still healing from the brief bruise to our egos, we received a crash course in putting up drywall. We learned the group before us only managed to hang two sheets of drywall, thus setting up the challenge for us to do more. Our group then split into two groups of four and worked in separate rooms. Both rooms had windows and electrical outlets.

Heather and Andrea Carey, sisters-in-law and wives of the Modern Automotive Performance owners, were quick to take the lead on measuring the first piece of drywall around the window. Two hours later, we installed aforementioned piece of drywall. Yes, two hours.

Our attempt at being precise, however, paid off. With power drill in hand, Jean Brown, a Bulletin co-worker, secured the screws. It took a minute, or 120, but we found our flow. The second piece, which didn’t surround a window or outlet, went up within minutes. After a brief water break, we tackled the third sheet of drywall. Never in my life have I been more terrified of an outlet than when we first began measuring around it. On the first go-around, we measured, scored and cut the window dimensions correctly but spliced a hole in the drywall about two inches too wide around the outlet. Discouraged, but still determined, we grabbed a new piece of drywall and remeasured. This time, Marcia suggested we use lipstick to imprint the outline of the outlet onto the back of the drywall. For anyone who knows me, I’m queen of all things lip care. Bonnie Bell served me well on this day; pink lipstick to the rescue.

Coloring the lining of the outlet worked like a charm and we had a perfect cutout. Once the third sheet of drywall was installed, the fourth was a breeze.

Feeling a little ambitious after the feat we had undertaken, and with about 30 minutes left of our day, we started on a second wall, which, yet again, had windows and outlets. With the help of Marcia and some reworking of measurements, we were able to install a fifth sheet of drywall, far surpassing the previous group and my own expectations.

I walked away from the construction site feeling a sense of accomplishment and a bit dusty, but equipped with more knowledge about how this organization helps families in need.

Did you know that those chosen to live in a Habitat for Humanity home must contribute their time to help build the home? Otherwise known as “sweat equity,” the future owners are required to give back on both their home and other builds. This fundamental piece of Habitat for Humanity completes the circle of giving.

Looking back at the home, which is slated for completion in March, I realized that it doesn’t matter how fast the drywall was installed or how many times we had to remeasure. What’s important is the family who will create a life in the rooms we helped build. And hopefully years later, when the owners decide to remodel they will pull off the drywall and see our four signatures, the lipstick stain on the outlet box and feel just as proud of this home as we did.

Emily Buss
Emily Buss joined the South Washington County Bulletin in February 2013. She covers local government in Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport, along with other general assignment reporting. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communications from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
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