Building—and leading—the Habitat way -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Building—and leading—the Habitat way

House leader Kerry Kempf (yellow shirt).

To the untrained eye, a construction site looks like sheer chaos, a loud, forbidding place of burly builders and dangerous tasks. Add to that ear-splitting mix a seemingly impossible deadline – say, finishing 30 homes in five days – and ordinary people might be expected to run away screaming.

But the Jimmy Carter Work Project 2007 in Los Angeles is an intensely felt, meticulously orchestrated, multi-layered phenomenon that inspires a remarkable amount of loyalty among its volunteer ranks. Nowhere is that loyalty more evident than in the hierarchy of the construction site itself.

Volunteer laborers occupy the first rung of the hierarchical ladder on the JCWP job site. These people have little, if any, experience building houses, but they have tremendous enthusiasm and boundless energy.

“Some people learn everything quickly,” said Mike Hosey of Angier, N.C., who has five JCWPs under his toolbelt. “And others are better off just helping to pick up trash around the site.”

Next up on the ladder are the crew chiefs, who offer hands-on teaching and eagle-eye supervision of specific construction duties, such as roofing or painting or installing cabinets. These are the slightly seasoned volunteers who either have some expertise in their fields or are particularly quick studies.

Overseeing each partner family’s home on a JCWP site are the house leaders, who wear the coveted yellow T-shirts and keep the project running as smoothly as possible.

Different strokes

Leadership styles differ dramatically from house to house.

On the San Pedro construction site, house leader Tom Gerdy relies on an outsize sense of humor to keep his troops motivated. On his name tag, his name is spelled “To5m.” Anybody foolish enough to ask what that means is told, “The 5 is silent.”

At random moments, Gerdy will bellow, “Break time, everybody!” and then immediately yell, “What are you doing sitting around? We’ve got a lot of work to do!” And on his assigned house, Gerdy posts printed signs that say things like “Dry Paint” or “Reward: Lost $50. If Found, Just Keep It.”

“Your job basically is to make sure the volunteers are busy and happy,” said Sylvia Zwissler, a five-time JCWP veteran who works for the Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity. “There are probably some ways to do certain jobs that might just get them done, but you can’t lose sight of that ‘busy’ and ‘happy’ part. And ultimately, you have to make sure that it all gets done, and that it all gets done to the right specifications.”

House Leader Sylvia Zwissler and Block Leader Bif Haigh.

On the block

House leaders work closely with block leaders, also in yellow shirts. In Zwissler’s case, that means working with Charlie Magill. A longtime volunteer from Vermont, Magill knocks on his hard hat for emphasis when he jokes that “being block leader means you have a blockhead.” He’s responsible for what’s going on in several units, offering advice and help whenever individual house leaders ask. “I’m the they-need-it-go-find-it guy,” he said.

Beyond block leaders, there are site supervisors at both locations of the JCWP 2007, at Harborside Terrace in San Pedro and Vermont Village in South Central L.A., and roving safety supervisors who make sure scaffolding is stable, hard hats are being worn, etc.

Being a leader at any level on a JCWP site requires a good bit of technical skill and a natural knack for taking care of business – and taking care of people.

House leader Kerry Kempf stops for only a moment to chat with an eager reporter before being whisked away by one of his crew members. Seems there’s an urgent siding-related question.

Before he rushes off, though, Kempf stops to adjust the reporter’s hard hat. A veteran of 23 builds, Kempf first got involved with Habitat in 1994.

How does he teach unskilled volunteers to build a house? “With a whole lot of patience,” he said.