Making a first home last in Birmingham -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Making a first home last in Birmingham


Doug Cook (right) works with other volunteers Monday to reshingle the roof of Michael Foster's home in Fairfield, Alabama. The roof proved to be a good spot for morning work, as the sunrise provided relief from the cold.
© Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


Homeowner Michael Foster works with volunteers to lay sheeting around his house in Fairfield, Alabama. The renovation of his family’s home is one of 28 projects under way in the Wylam and Fairfield communities this week.
© Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


Volunteer Elena Tait, of Poughkeepsie, New York, works on the roof of the Mays family's new Habitat home in Fairfield, Alabama.
© Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


Volunteer Alicia Ewen works on the Mays family’s new roof. Ewen said she tries to meet up with friends for a Habitat build each year.
© Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

By Phillip Jordan

At 7:30 a.m., a crew of volunteers huddled in Michael Foster’s driveway to greet each other and to receive safety instructions from house leaders J.D. Dunn and Vince Schwager. The circle grew ever tighter as people spoke; a combination of budding camaraderie and the need for warmth on a brisk 43-degree morning.

By 8 a.m., the crew found a new way to bond—and to warm. They climbed atop Foster’s roof, where the sun had risen high enough to hit the worn shingles that need to be stripped and replaced as part of this A Brush with Kindness repair project.

“This is just a blessing to me,” Foster said during a break from the roof work. “I grew up in Fairfield, and my wife and I have three kids now. We will all grow up in Fairfield.

“This is my first house, the first house I’ve ever owned, and one thing my grandfather taught me is to always try and hold on to your firsts. There’s nothing like the first one.”

Throughout the city, Monday signaled the first day of work on 28 houses that Habitat for Humanity Greater Birmingham aims to complete by Friday, with the help of more than 400 volunteers. By the end of Day One, that goal remained on track, with new houses, rehab houses and repair projects all moving toward completion.

A momentous five-year anniversary

Elena Tait traveled from Poughkeepsie, New York, to help build a house alongside the Mays family in Fairfield. This year’s Carter Work Project is the fifth Habitat build that Tait has devoted her time and resources to support. The first? A four-house project in Lake Charles, Louisiana, just over five years ago that was completed one day before Hurricane Katrina plowed into the area.

“We had family and friends keeping us posted on when we needed to get out of there,” Tait said. “We finished that last day and left immediately. We heard that all the houses survived, though, and all the families, too.”

‘Almost-family’ reunions

On the Women Build house in Fairfield, Alicia Ewen rattled off 10 names when asked whom she knew at this year’s Birmingham event. Ewen frequently travels with her friend, Mary Lou Bowman, an architect with Habitat of Broward County in Florida. This year, the duo met up with eight other Habitat friends from Florida, Wisconsin and Illinois—many of them had built together in Thailand during last year’s Carter Work Project.

“We try and meet up for a build each year,” Ewen said. “We’ve become close. We’ll go visit friends up there, and they’ll come down to Florida to see us, too.”

A few miles down the road, where volunteers are helping Habitat complete its Wylam Oaks neighborhood, another familiar crew is at work. Since 1993, about 15 volunteers from Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Texas and Canada have met up for Carter Work Projects. They all work with house leader Kent Donaldson, which means this year they are helping finish Geri Smith’s home.

Does their work site feature mostly words of gentle encouragement among friends? “Ha, yeah right,” Brian Piggot said with a mischievous grin. “Lots of busting each other’s chops. We’ve worked together so long, we can make fun of each other.”

Piggot, from Englewood, Florida, says they enjoy adding new folks to the mix, too. “Oh sure, what little knowledge we have, we try to pass it on to newcomers,” he said. “Hopefully in the future they will feel compelled to work with their own local affiliate. It’s gratifying to see that happen.”

Phillip Jordan is a writer-editor for Habitat for Humanity International.