Volunteer Story – Day 4

'We're going to get there'

Longtime volunteer Joel Fortgang, at his second Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, is a block leader for the rehab of 30 houses in the historic neighborhood of Forest Heights in Gulfport, Miss., this week. Next week, he’s looking for a job. Photo by Ezra Millstein
Volunteer Story – Day 4 -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A career can wait, while a free spirit finds his way

— Block leader Joel Fortgang is an impressive sight, zipping around the cul-de-sac community of Forest Heights on a golf cart in overalls and a straw hat that appears to have a big bite taken out of the top.

His chest-length beard doesn’t get in the way of his construction duties, he says, but occasionally it does get a little paint in it.

Fortgang is 30 and single.

“I couldn’t do this if I had anybody to support,” he said, laughing. “You can’t live on PB&J sandwiches when you have kids who need to be fed.”

He took an interesting route from Germantown, Tenn., to the 25th annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

“I graduated from Georgia Tech with way too many degrees and decided I didn’t want to get a real job,” he said. “So I’ve been goofing off ever since.”

Fortgang’s concept of “goofing off” isn’t exactly typical. While earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, he ran the Georgia Tech campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. For the past dozen years, he has been an active volunteer with the Atlanta chapter of Habitat.

“I’m not furthering my career,” he acknowledged, “but I’m furthering something.”

This is Fortgang’s second Carter Work Project. In 2003, he was a house leader in Valdosta, Ga.

He sees some definite challenges as the newly formed HFH of the Mississippi Gulf Coast struggles to create a sustainable building program of 100 houses a year while also mounting this gigantic blitz-building program this week.

“But everybody here is really into the mission, so that’s good,” he said.

“I’ve been asking for more volunteers since I got here,” he added. “I’ve been saying, ‘Give me more people, give me more people.’ And all of a sudden, on Sunday night, we have 300 people here to help us. It just felt so great.”

Right now, home for Fortgang is a remodel-in-progress in western Mississippi. Because of the transient nature of his life, though, his mailing address is still at Mom and Dad’s home in Germantown.

But after this weeklong Carter Project, life may change dramatically.

“I’m going to start looking for a real job on Monday,” Fortgang said. “After working for 12 or 13 hours a day here, looking for work for six hours a day should be pretty easy.”

He’s not sure where to center his search at this point, but he’ll most likely be looking in areas more urban than western Mississippi.

“I like the city,” he said without irony, in his overalls and straw hat.

Ideally, he would like to land in San Francisco, New York or Chicago.

But for now, he’s completely focused on one community in Gulfport, Miss., where the rehabs are running pretty much as planned.

“We’re going to get there,” he said. “You know, some will be ahead of schedule and some will be a little behind schedule. But we’ll get there.”
— Teresa K. Weaver