Driving a twelve-penny nail can be harder than you might think. First, you can miss the nail and hit your thumb, bringing a kind of pain that can stay with you a few days. Second, once you get the nail started, you can whack it the wrong way and bend it, which means you’ve got to start over. Last, if you don’t let the weight of the hammer carry its mass into the nail, it can take ten or fifteen strikes to finally drive it all the way in.
Those are some of the many things I’ve learned over the last several weeks, training to be core a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. One other is that the term “twelve penny nail” comes from how many pennies it took to buy a hundred nails of a certain size (3 1/4” long) in England in the 1400’s.
I’ve learned some about building houses, although I’m still sorely lacking. But I’ve gathered much more, even in my old age, about people: how much they are willing to give to each other, how kind, even in this age of corrosive cynicism, they can be, and how much fun they can have working toward a tangible goal.
Habitat is organized, purposeful and goal-oriented. Volunteers go through a training program to become ‘core volunteers’ before they can regularly participate. That means attending “Habitat University”, which consists of seven multi-hour, hands-on classes. Wall construction, framing, roof trussing, and decking, among other subjects, are covered. In addition to learning the fundamentals of home building, you learn new respect for the sweaty toil of putting up homes. Laying down shingles on a black roof on a ninety-five degree day, it’s easy to lose five pounds in four hours. Once you gain core volunteer status, you have latitude in what stage of home building you want to participate in, and there’s plenty of opportunities since Habitat builds dozens of homes in Dallas each year.
In this week’s “Blitz Build,” more than two thousand volunteers are turning out as extra hands. Core volunteers, guided by “House Leaders,” guide those extra hands in how to be productive. The goal is to build fourteen houses, some starting from bare slabs, in five days.
Corporations such as Pioneer Natural Resources, Bank of America, Nissan, Chase and a dozen others contribute capital and employees to get the job done. One other major and perennial contributor is Highland Park United Presbyterian church, which has built more than a hundred Habitat homes.
Habitat homeowners themselves must contribute two hundred hours of labor in construction of their houses in lieu of a down payment.
“It’s wonderful,” says Antonio Soto, who, with wife Cilia, is on the construction site all week, hammer in hand. “All the people who are helping us, it’s amazing. I don’t have words to describe it.”
There are layers of community involvement here. Habitat’s Apprentice program hires and pays young residents to train for jobs in construction trades.
Local elementary schools have painted the strand board going up on exterior walls as goodwill messages for the project. By the time the homes are finished they’ll be covered and invisible. But with Habitat, everyone who labors here knows what’s inside.