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Aspiring architect learns construction from the ground up

By Soyia Ellison

Manuela Segna finished her master’s degree in architecture while serving in AmeriCorps. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison

When Manuela Segna signed on as an AmeriCorps construction crew leader for Our Towns Habitat for Humanity in Davidson, North Carolina, people kept telling her how brave she was.

“I didn’t understand what they meant until I got into it,” said Segna, a small woman whose children are the ages of the typical AmeriCorps member. “It’s very physical work. But it has been an amazing experience because I’ve learned so much about construction.”

Segna, one of about 80 AmeriCorps members taking part in this week’s Build-a-Thon in Pensacola, Florida, moved from Italy to America in 1985 “for love.” She raised two children in California, but in 2007, looking for a change, she headed east and enrolled in an architectural program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

She began volunteering with Habitat through the Women Build program as a way to learn more about the practical side of architecture.

When she started, she said, she had no idea what she was doing: “But I felt so loved and accepted by the little group of women with Women Build that I was not intimidated to pick up the tools.”

Manuela Segna and Sue Remington try to figure out what sort of root they’ve pulled while helping clean up a community garden in Pensacola. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison

After that, there was no stopping her.

“Once I learned to use the drill, I became a tool girl.”

In fact, for Christmas she asked her kids for what she calls “baby drills” — small tools that are easier to lift — but got the usual PJs and slippers.

“I’m going to try again next Christmas,” she said.

Segna completed her master’s degree in December. When her year with AmeriCorps ends, she will look for a job at an architectural firm so she can amass the hours required to earn her license.

That doesn’t mean she’s saying goodbye to Habitat, though.

“I want to be a volunteer with Habitat forever,” she said. “I want to be a Habitat lifer.”

‘It’s a really, really great idea’

No one is more excited about the work AmeriCorps members are doing in Pensacola this week than Dianne Robinson.

Dianne Robinson is excited by the prospect of restoring her old neighborhood to its former glory. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison

She grew up in the city’s Westside Garden District when the community was in its prime, and she remembers it as a vibrant place where neighbor helped neighbor. Robinson, who joined the members for lunch one day to thank them for their efforts, said the vacant lot where they were eating was once the site of her elementary school. A pink house up the street used to house a community center where she took knitting and crocheting classes.

Robinson, now 71, married a Navy sailor in the 1960s and moved to Bremerton, Washington. She raised her children there and launched a successful career — even got elected to the city council.

But Pensacola is where her roots are, and it kept calling to her. She moved back nine months ago to find a place nothing like the one she remembered.

“It was heartbreaking to see,” she said. “Some of the houses are deteriorating. The neighborhood just hasn’t been kept up properly.”

Robinson connected with Pensacola Habitat for Humanity, which had chosen the Westside Garden District for its first Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative project. After meeting with community members — including Robinson — to learn what they want for their community, the affiliate has committed to a long-term cleanup and improvement effort.

“I think it’s an awesome thing,” she said. “It’s a really, really great idea. They’ve built a lot of houses, but now they’re rehabilitating the neighborhood, and it is really needed here.”

Robinson plans to build a house in the area on land her family has owned since 1896.

“I am hoping,” she said, “that eventually this neighborhood will become the strong neighborhood it was years ago.”

Jessica Sweeney said she had been looking forward to a week of getting sweaty and dirty. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison

‘I’m sad it’s coming to an end’

Though safety is always of primary importance at a Build-a-Thon, some cuts and scrapes and bruises are inevitable.

The AmeriCorps support team was ready when Jessica Sweeney turned up with a trickle of blood running down her arm—the result of a run-in with some broken concrete. Sweeney seemed unconcerned as she waited for a bandage: “Now I’m legit,” she joked.

Sweeney works with youth programs at Northern Virginia Habitat for Humanity, which means she spends most of her workdays sitting in an office. Not 10 minutes before she got cut, she’d been talking about how excited she was about a week of manual labor.

“I’m just looking forward to getting dirty and sweaty,” she said.

Not that she dislikes her office job.

“It’s been an awesome, awesome year,” she said. “I’m sad it’s coming to an end.”

Sweeney, who is originally from New Jersey and has a master’s in social work from Monmouth University, said the AmeriCorps experience is a good way to transition into the working world.

“It’s a lot more laid-back,” she said, “and there’s so much more room to learn and grow.”

Sweeney isn’t sure what she’s going to do when her year of service is over, but she would like to continue working with nonprofits. And she’d like to stay connected with Habitat.

“Housing is a human right,” she said, “so it’s awesome to be a part of an organization that does something so basic that affects people’s lives in such a big way.”