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Five reasons to love Lake-Sumter Habitat’s Build-a-Thon

By Soyia Ellison

This week’s AmeriCorps Build-a-Thon is taking place at six sites around Lake and Sumter counties in Florida, and at every one of them, you’ll find the most interesting people. Let us introduce you to a few of them:

Marc Fiore, a first-year AmeriCorps member serving with Habitat for Humanity MidOhio, directs VISTA Angela Mora as she works on the frame of a home in Umatilla, Florida. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason AsterosMarc Fiore, a first-year AmeriCorps member serving with Habitat for Humanity MidOhio, directs VISTA Angela Mora as she works on the frame of a home in Umatilla, Florida. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros

‘It’s smiles all day’

Marc Fiore just might be the happiest AmeriCorps member building this week — and that’s saying something.

Fiore, a first-year member serving with Habitat for Humanity MidOhio in Columbus, started his AmeriCorps year less than four weeks after graduating from Bowling Green State University with a degree in construction management.

“My love for Habitat is actually what introduced me to AmeriCorps,” he said. “I did three internships in college, two at for-profit companies and one at Habitat. Habitat was my only internship that I didn’t get paid for, and I absolutely loved it.”

He saw AmeriCorps as a stepping-stone to his dream job.

“After working for Habitat, I don’t think I could ever work for a for-profit,” he said. “The atmosphere is so incredible.”

Fiore said he loves working with volunteers — people who are working because they want to be, not because they have to be.

“It’s smiles all day,” he said. By contrast, at most construction jobs, “You go to work all day. You’re miserable. You’re a number. You’re trying to make a deadline.”

As you might guess, Fiore is also enjoying Build-a-Thon: “Being from Ohio, I’m just loving being around the palm trees, being outside in a T-shirt. I’ve already played sand volleyball, and I’m looking forward to going to Disney.”

George Davis, construction supervisor at Southwest Volusia Habitat for Humanity (Florida), saws a two-by-four. Davis, who lost both legs to blood clots, schedules the work and inspections on the build site. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason AsterosGeorge Davis, construction supervisor at Southwest Volusia Habitat for Humanity (Florida), saws a two-by-four. Davis, who lost both legs to blood clots, schedules the work and inspections on the build site. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros

‘I’m able to make a difference’

George Davis knows his way around a construction site.

He grew up working alongside his dad, who was a plumbing contractor. And he continued doing a little construction work on the side even after he went into the printing business, eventually starting his own handyman company.

When he lost his left leg to blood clots in 2003, he was able to walk with the aid of a prosthetic. But after he lost the right leg to the same thing in 2007, he had to use a wheelchair. It seemed his construction career had come to an end.

But Southwest Volusia Habitat of Humanity (Florida) knew what a valuable volunteer they had in Davis and asked him to stay with them as a site supervisor, eventually encouraging him to apply for an AmeriCorps position.

“I can’t do it physically anymore,” he said, “so this is the next best thing.”

In his current role, Davis choreographs most of what happens on a build, scheduling the work and all the necessary inspections.

“I can at least be involved and know that it’s being done well,” he said.

At 58, he says he’s “the old man of the bunch,” but he has connected with quite a few of the younger AmeriCorps members. “More than I would have sitting at home anyway.”

This week’s Build-a-Thon is close enough to his home in DeLand that he’s able to drive over every day to serve as a team leader.

“If it wasn’t for AmeriCorps, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m not just sitting at home collecting my disability. I’m able to make a difference.”

David and Pita Olson, family partners working with Lake-Sumter Habitat for Humanity, are working alongside AmeriCorps members on their new home. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason AsterDavid and Pita Olson, family partners working with Lake-Sumter Habitat for Humanity, are working alongside AmeriCorps members on their new home. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros

‘This is going to be our home’

David and Pita Olson, high school sweethearts who’ve been married for nearly seven years, both had itinerant childhoods, moving again and again because of their parents’ jobs. His dad worked construction; her mom was a migrant worker.

“We moved every two years,” said David, who is now 26. “And it was hard for me as a kid, always having to start over, always being the new kid.”

He and Pita wanted a more stable life for their three children.

But when they applied for a mortgage, they were denied. She’s a stay-at-home mom, and he works in construction. They didn’t make enough money for the typical $1,500-a-month mortgage. Plus, they were $6,000 in debt.

Then one day they went on what turned out to be the most important shopping trip of their lives. While browsing at the Habitat ReStore, Pita spotted a homeownership brochure. At the time, the Olsons thought all Habitat did was operate stores. They applied and got a call back a week later.

“The best thing Habitat did for us was putting us through a Dave Ramsey Financial Peace class,” David said. “It’s changed how we spend our money, how we budget our money. It’s changed our life. It’s made our dream come true.”

Today, just a little over a year later, they’ve paid off their debt and started a savings account. And they’re just months from moving into their own house.

On Tuesday, Pita watched AmeriCorps members put up the trusses on what will be her new three-bedroom, two-bath home and talked about how excited she is that her 4-year-old son, Kaleb, will start school next fall in the district where he will spend all of his school years.

She pointed out the spot where she plans to install a swing set and a kiddie pool.

“I want to be a soccer mom—the whole thing,” she said.

David, meanwhile, said he is looking forward to the freedom that comes with homeownership.

“If I want to plant a tree or paint a window or knock out a wall to make one really big room, I can,” he said. “We’ve lived in a lot of houses, but this is going to be our home.”

Heather Hardy, an AmeriCorps alumna, places painter’s tape around the door frame during one of Build-a-Thon’s A Brush with Kindness projects. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason AsterosHeather Hardy, an AmeriCorps alumna, places painter’s tape around the door frame during one of Build-a-Thon’s A Brush with Kindness projects. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros

‘100 percent awesome’

How much does AmeriCorps alumna Heather Hardy love working with Habitat?

Enough that she chose to spend her birthday putting up fences and planting shrubbery as part of the 2013 Build-a-Thon’s A Brush with Kindness work.

Hardy, who turned 26 on Tuesday, served two years with AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps program, which sends out teams to work with nonprofits. Her first assignment was with Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Alabama in Mobile.

There she discovered that she loved construction.

Since the end of her two years of service, Hardy has been working part-time jobs and trying to get into the Air Force.

She recently reconnected with Habitat when the AmeriCorps alumni group let her know about an A Brush with Kindness project in Decatur, Georgia, not far from her home in McDonough. At that event, Hardy met Mike Townsend, who is heading up Habitat’s new AmeriCorps Alumni Association, which launches in July. He told her that this year, for the first time, Habitat is inviting alumni to participate in Build-a-Thon, and she decided to spend her own money to come along.

“I liked that it was a week, which is a good amount of time to get stuff done,” she said. “I also liked that it was AmeriCorps-related. It was 100 percent AmeriCorps and 100 percent Habitat, and I thought, ‘That’s 100 percent awesome.’ ”

Though she didn’t serve directly with Habitat, she thinks a Habitat alumni association is a great idea.

“I love doing construction. I have a lot of skills I don’t get to use that often. Having a way to go and volunteer with Habitat and also engage with other AmeriCorps members — I think that is a really exciting outlet for me.”

It’s also turning out to be a good networking opportunity: Hardy was telling a member of the Lake-Sumter Habitat for Humanity team about her hopes of joining the military, and he told her that if it didn’t work out, she should talk to him about a job in construction at the affiliate.

“That’s a really exciting option,” she said.

And she did get to have a little birthday fun. On Tuesday, the Lake-Sumter Habitat staff treated AmeriCorps members to a meal at Cody’s Original Roadhouse in The Villages, a bustling retirement community with a vibrant nightlife. After dinner, waiters brought out a cake and clapped and sang as Hardy did a little birthday dance.

Bueana Cox, an AmeriCorps member serving with Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, Texas, takes measurements at the Build-a-Thon build site. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia EllisonBueana Cox, an AmeriCorps member serving with Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, Texas, takes measurements at the Build-a-Thon build site. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison

‘Clearly, we are getting things done’

Bueana Cox did not want to be one of those people who are always complaining about things but never doing anything about them.

So she left Southwest Baptist University in Missouri to join AmeriCorps. After a year of serving with a community center in New Orleans, she signed on with Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, Texas.

Joining the Corps, she said, was life-changing.

“It’s allowed me to find what gives me joy, what allows me to go to bed at night saying, ‘I did my part today,’ ” she said.

Through AmeriCorps, she found other people like her — people who want to make a difference, “to make a dent in our small part of the world.”

Cox, 24, has already committed to another year with Trinity Habitat. After that, she hopes to work overseas and, eventually, to start a foster home for teen girls.

But on Thursday, she was content simply to step back for a moment and watch her AmeriCorps team transform a vacant property in Eustis into a little park and open-air market.

Members were planting shrubbery, spreading mulch, building roofs for pavilions and laying an impressive 16,000 square feet of sod at speeds so fast that the forklift driver bringing in pallets of sod couldn’t keep up.

“Clearly, we are getting things done,” she said. “I’m so thankful to get to see that things can really change if you put your words into action.”