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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 30, 2002

Construction crew builds character, too

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Imagine spending a month of your summer vacation putting in free labor on a construction site working harder than you have in your whole life.

Imagine paying $5,000 for the opportunity.

Nineteen high school students who arrived in Hawai'i last week, most of them from the East Coast, did just that. Instead of going to summer camp or on a fancy "teen tour," these kids asked their parents to pay for their privilege to serve.

These teenagers from the Mainland got their parents to pay $5,000 so they could come to Hawai'i and volunteer their time as construction workers for Honolulu Habitat for Humanity, which is building a home for a family in Makiki.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

The group from Putney Student Travel is working full-time, Monday through Friday, for four weeks building a house for Honolulu Habitat for Humanity. They're pounding nails, carrying lumber, setting mortar, all under the watchful eye of Habitat construction supervisor John Serrano.

"I've worked 10 years in construction and I never worked so hard in my life," says Serrano, who is new to Habitat. Most of the kids have never even hammered a nail before, so Serrano is having to teach them everything and handle all the skilled work by himself.

"I'm making less pay than before, and I'm working harder, but I get up in the morning and I can't wait to get to work," he said. "A lot of people can't say that about their jobs."

Honolulu Habitat for Humanity, a chapter of the international nonprofit organization, builds affordable homes for low-income families. The families contribute "sweat equity" to the building of their own homes and homes for other families. Volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, are an integral part of the process.

This particular house is being built near the Hawai'i Nature Center in Makiki. The family, a couple and their two young sons, have been living on the land for many years in substandard conditions.

"They have this ... this ... it's a shack," says Jose Villa, the Executive Director for Honolulu Habitat for Humanity. Villa struggles to describe the family's current living situation. "Inside the shack are two Igloo tents, one for the mom and dad, and one for the two boys who are maybe like 10 and 11. It's just dirt floor. They took pallets inside that they use to kind of create a sidewalk inside of the house so that when it rains they can kind of walk on these pallets. It's really kind of a sad way to live."

But not for long. Their new 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home is coming up just next door. In the past week, the teens were able to put in the foundation. By the time they leave in three weeks, they hope to have the roof up.

This is the first time a Putney group has worked with Honolulu Habitat for Humanity. Putney runs programs to send teens around the world to do service projects. Villa says he is suddenly seeing more interest from such groups since Sept. 11. Hawai'i has become an attractive option for people who want to volunteer "overseas" but who also want to stay in the country.

Despite the pricey tuition, there's not much luxury for the students. The money goes to cover the cost of travel and supervision and other program elements. But the whole trip is about "roughing it." The kids are staying at Camp Timberline in Makakilo, and they're getting up extra early to help paint and fix up the camp, too.

Says Villa, "Part of the rules that I really love is that they said, 'We don't want these kids to be comfortable. They're already comfortable. If their parents can pay $5,000 for them to do this, they're already comfortable. We want them to get uncomfortable. We want them to rough it a little bit.' They're real clear about that. They don't want them in a hotel in Waikiki. That's not why they're coming. They're coming to work."

Serrano gathers his crew for lunch and gives them a little scolding about working together. The students nod in agreement and then dive into their lunches, undaunted.

"You don't see anyone hanging their heads on this job," Serrano says. "Everyone is having fun."

Pamela Fischer, an 18-year-old from New York City, is on her second Putney trip. "It's so much better than going on a trip and ... going shopping," she says. "We're actually here to help. It's the best feeling."

But right now, there's a little snag. Habitat is looking for a few good sandwiches. Or pizzas. Or whatever.

As part of the agreement with Putney, Habitat has to provide the student crew with lunches every day. Villa says it costs about $150 a day for the lunches. The Habitat board of directors came up with the money for the first week and a church group has offered to bring lunches for part of the second week, but Habitat still needs to cover about 10 days for the crew. Villa is looking for ways to raise the money or get the lunches. If you have ideas (or lunches) you can contact Honolulu Habitat for Humanity at 486-7792.

Other than that little lunch complication, the partnership is working out like a dream.

"To see these kids work out there," Villa says, "it gives you real faith in the youth of today."

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.