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Monday, 1997 Jimmy Carter Work Project

By Scot Ninnemann

BEREA, Ky. (June 16, 1997) -- It's 5:45 a.m., and you might guess that our Berea College dormitory is perfectly still at this hour because its occupants are sound asleep. But this is the first work day of Habitat for Humanity International's 1997 Jimmy Carter Work Project, and Pearsons Hall is silent as I wake up because nearly all the volunteers staying here already have struck out for the work site.

Apart from Sunday registration and a welcome picnic, their weekend mostly was spent anticipating the build and meeting the other participants. Now, as the sun rises on this Monday morning, virtually all have eaten breakfast at the work site and are attentively huddled for devotions, eager to pick up their tools and get to work.

The hammering begins at 7 a.m. as the three homeowner families in Berea drive in the first nails of the blitz build. After enthusiatic applause, the work crews jump into a beehive of sawing and nailing that will last until 5 p.m. The volunteer builders will stop only for two short breaks and one large home-cooked lunch under the cafeteria tent.

Each day's calendar has not only a schedule of work hours but also specific goals to be accomplished within that period. Except for the house foundations, which were laid by a pre-build crew, the entire process of home construction will be condensed into the next six days. Support staff is on hand to coordinate everything from feeding the site's 100 or so volunteers to check-in stations and recycling. There's even an "elf crew" -- volunteers who arrive after 5 p.m. to bring any houses lagging behind schedule up to speed.

This site in Berea, Ky., is just one of nine JCWP work sites. Together, the seven modestly sized, locally run Habitat affiliates coordinating this year's JCWP are supervising and caring for more than 2,400 volunteers as they build a total of 52 houses.

Coordination and planning on this scale don't happen by accident. It's mostly a result of miracles, says Guy Patrick -- miracles that happen when ordinary people rise to meet seemingly overwhelming challenges.

"The beautiful thing that's happened is that people, out of the vacuum, have come up to do this," he says of the JCWP planning. "There's something about making the commitment -- as it approaches, people sense more and more the crisis and need and then they immediately rise up to it."

Although he downplays his own importance, Patrick himself is just such a person. A board member last year, he stepped in to fill the affilate's executive director position when it suddenly became vacant at a crucial juncture in his life.

"I was working with my wife who ran an assisted-living elderly residence," he explains. When the sponsoring organization decided to close the residence, Patrick found himself saying, 'OK, Lord, what do you want next?'" Only a week later, the Habitat affiliate's executive director decided to quit. "The board panicked and we were sitting around the table saying, 'We have no director!' And then they said, 'Do you want to try this?'"

Patrick was eager to help, but worried that he lacked construction and organizational skills that would be needed in the year leading up to the JCWP. "I stood up and told them, 'You need to know who I am and what my capacities are, and then if you want me, that's OK.' And I think that's what made the board conscious for the first time that this was going to be a team effort or no effort at all."

The only paid staff member at the Madison County affiliate, Patrick is quick to praise his volunteer co-workers. He credits Bill Stolte with the organizational skills needed for an undertaking like the blitz build. "Everything that's happening here today is under his organization," Patrick says.

Charlene Stone is another team member whose involvement was both unexpected and critical to the affiliate's success in organizing the blitz build, Patrick says. "She walked in off the street early on in this project...and started giving 8 to 10 hours a day."

"It was God's intervention, truthfully," says Stone. She heard Guy speak at her church and thought that helping out "would be nice." But she put it off. "Then one day I was walking up the street and happened to see Guy." That chance meeting was the nudge it took to get her involved.

In relatively short order, Guy Patrick had the skills through other willing people that he himself lacked. The miracle, he says, is that God not only knew what was beyond his capacity but also sent exactly the right people to fill in the gaps.

"I think God says, 'Just do this part and it'll catch up,'" says Stone. "I don't see how you do any of this kind of stuff without that (kind of faith)."

Of planning for the influx of JCWP volunteers, Stone says: "It's overwhelmed me occasionally, but when I've been overwhelmed, Guy hasn't, so we've had this wonderful balance. He's such a calming force."

Now, she observes, the week they've all been planning for is here. And it's exciting to see "this many people willing to serve."

"The bottom line (is) service." And that's what all the volunteers are doing, she says.

Come Saturday, three families in Berea will have newly-built Habitat houses as a result.



Scot Ninnemann is webmaster at Habitat for Humanity International in Americus, Ga. He is on special assignment all week in Berea, Ky., doing web reports from the Jimmy Carter Work Project.



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