By Soyia Ellison
When Katherine DaSilva left Connecticut to work with Habitat for Humanity Bay-Waveland Area in Mississippi, she had never been to the South and had never built anything.
“I had no idea what I was in for,” she said. “And it has turned into the experience of my lifetime so far.
“I fell in love with the Habitat mission. I fell in love with the Gulf Coast. I fell in love with the volunteers and working with so many passionate people. I wanted to stay.”
And so DaSilva, who had worked with Bay-Waveland Area Habitat through AmeriCorps and Hands-on Mississippi, signed up for another year with AmeriCorps, this time working with Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She’s now serving her second year in that location.
But this week, DaSilva and more than 90 other AmeriCorps members are in Florida, helping build and repair homes with Lake-Sumter Habitat for Humanity as part of the 2013 AmeriCorps Build-a-Thon.
Under gray, threatening skies, DaSilva helped raise walls that will one day protect a family of five.
“Build-a-Thon is an incredible bonding experience,” she said. “It’s a chance to work, live and play with other AmeriCorps members.”
DaSilva is 30. When her service year ends in August, she doesn’t know what she’ll do, but she does know this: Wherever she lands, she’ll find a way to give back.
“I can’t imagine not serving in some way after this.”
One person who understands how she feels is Angela Mora, who spent Monday working on a new home in the town of Umatilla.
Mora is serving her first year as a VISTA at Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, Texas, where she’s involved in community development and the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.
Before that, she spent nearly four years working in Ecuador, first in the Peace Corps and then on an independent community development project.
“I have a commitment to public service,” she said. “I want to contribute to my community and to the world at large.”
Build-a-Thon is a nice change of pace from her day-to-day work.
“It’s fantastic,” she said during a break from sawing boards and sweeping. “As someone who works in the office, I don’t get to get out and get my hands dirty. So this is a wonderful opportunity.”
Mora was working on a home that will belong to Jose Gonzalez and Rita Munfrada. The married couple and their three young children currently rent a leaky, moldy house with just one bathroom. They can’t quite believe they are just months from owning their own home.
“It’s exciting,” Munfrada said. “I wanted to cry in the morning when I saw everybody show up. … It’s our dream. Finally, it’s coming true. It was worth the wait.”
Gonzalez, who works for a citrus company, is originally from Puerto Rico. Though his English is good now, when he first met Munfrada, they needed an English-Spanish dictionary to communicate.
“Here in the United States, it’s not easy to buy a house,” he said. “But now I have a home for my kids.”
Their future three-bedroom, two-bathroom home lies near the end of a long, sandy road. He likes that it’s out “in the country,” where his children can roam safely.
“All this,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Across Lake and Sumter counties, other AmeriCorps teams were hard at work Monday — rehabbing two homes in Leesburg and another in Eustis; pressure-washing and landscaping half-a-dozen Habitat homes elsewhere in Eustis as part of a Home Preservation  project.
“Things went well,” said Sean del Castillo, director of construction for Lake-Sumter Habitat. “We got a lot of work done at all the sites today.”
Much work remains, of course, including beginning construction on an open-air market for the city of Eustis.
But for now, del Castillo said, “I’m happy with how things are progressing.”