Working on vacation

While seeing Alaska for first time, visitors also help build Habitat for Humanity home

Posted: Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Sweating under the summer sun, building a house for a perfect stranger isn't most people's idea of how to spend a summer vacation. But that's how siblings Greg and Beth Galligan and more than a dozen others are spending some of their vacation time this summer.

The Galligans and the others in the group are volunteers with Habitat for Humanity International's Global Village Program. Each volunteer is donating two weeks of his or her time and energy to build a house in Kenai for single mother Kim Diaz and her teenage daughter Faith McKinnon.

Although a lot of time, services and materials are donated by local business and volunteers, the majority of the Global Village Program participants are from Outside and, like the Galligans, this is their first trip to Alaska.

Greg Galligan, who hails from Boston, Mass., looked more than a little sunburned as he climbed down from the roof to take a break Thursday morning.

"I've been doing roofing for the last few days. Probably not the best choice, considering my pale skin," he said.

Galligan has volunteered his time for various organizations over the past few years while accruing experience in corporate finance and wanted to get in one more volunteer experience before starting at Harvard Business School in the fall. A friend had a great experience in the Habitat for Humanity program and recommended it.

"Basically, it was my friend who sold me on it," he said.

Galligan's sister, Beth, also will attend college in the fall, as a first year student at Boston College. Like her older brother, she has done a lot of volunteer work in the past and thought helping to build a house for someone in need was a good idea.

Beth Galligan had worked on the roof earlier in the week, as well as in the basement, but was working with the painting crew Thursday morning. Working on the house was the 18-year-old's first experience with construction, although she has performed other kinds of manual labor.

"I haven't built things, but I worked on a farm," she said.

Working on the house is the first time many of the volunteers have done construction, but for some the project also has provided additional first-time experiences.

Nora Gutierrez, an accountant from San Francisco, not only had never used a hammer, saw or paint brush, she'd never unrolled a sleeping bag until she was forced to sack out with everyone else on the floor of the church that's putting the group up -- the United Methodist Church of the New Covenant in Kenai.

"It was my first time sleeping in a sleeping bag," she said.

Gutierrez admits she's not the outdoor type and said her friends couldn't believe she was considering volunteering to build a house somewhere on the Last Frontier.

"I'm a city girl at heart. I don't even like the outdoors," Gutierrez said. "All my friends were like, 'Is it going to be like Survivor?' But I figured if I'm going to do it, why not just go all the way?"

With the help of training from professional construction workers, Gutierrez quickly went all the way from never using a hammer before to manhandling lumber on the dusty construction site and cutting boards to length as needed with the electric-powered circular chop saw.

"I've never been this dirty in my life," she said.

Donations from individuals and businesses, as well as funds raised by the volunteers themselves, helped pay for the materials to build the house.

"(The volunteers) paid all their expenses to get here, plus they raised about $25,000," said Terri Daly, administrator for the Central Kenai Peninsula affiliate of Habitat for Humanity.

Although much of the expense to build a Habitat house is paid for by donations of cash, time, materials and labor, the house is not free to the recipient. Families who move into a house built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers must be able to pay a monthly mortgage. However, the mortgage payment is tailored to what the family can afford and is substantially less than they would pay on the open market.

"(The families) now have a mortgage they can deal with," said Daly.

The first thing most families do with the money they save is buy health insurance for their kids; the second thing they do is go back to school or take a training course, so they can land a job that pays more, according to Daly.

The mortgage on a Habitat house is a bit unconventional: It's nonprofit, so carries no interest, and the monthly payments a family makes are used to fund the building of other Habitat houses.

The family also agrees to put in 500 hours of volunteer time -- known as "sweat equity" -- which can range from office work to construction with Habitat for Humanity and to live in the house for at least 10 years before selling.

Kim Diaz is looking forward to sleeping in her own room and being able to navigate her kitchen and bathroom, once construction of her new house is complete, which should be sometime before winter.

Diaz, who suffers from a potpourri of health problems and recently underwent surgery, uses a wheelchair to get around.

The apartment she shares with her daughter isn't built to accommodate a wheelchair and Diaz's daughter, Faith, sleeps in the apartment's one bedroom, while Diaz sleeps in the living room.

The house the Habitat volunteers are building has two bedrooms and will be wheelchair accessible, with ramps and extra-wide doors.

"It'll be really nice to have my own bedroom," said Diaz, who also is excited about easier access to the kitchen and the bathroom.

The home will be the 12th house built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers in the the Kenai-Soldotna area in the last 12 years and will be the fourth Habitat house on Cottage Circle. There are plans to build houses on two more lots that are available on the circle, as soon as the money can be raised.

To build the houses, the organization is looking for volunteers of all abilities and donations of all sizes.

"You can be a grandma who can only cook cookies, or you can be an oil company," said Leslie Ball, co-leader of the volunteers building the Diaz house. "We're willing to partner with anyone willing to help."

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