Like I was saying yesterday, when I was a teenager I participated in WorkCamp for two summers. WorkCamp is a volunteer summer program where youth groups PAY to go fix up houses (Think Habitat for Humanity, Jr.).
My second summer impacted me so much that I wrote a paper on it. I can’t think of a better way to talk about that second summer than to let my sixteen year-old self tell like it was:
There is a house somewhere. Perhaps it’s next door, perhaps it’s in another country, or perhaps it’s your house. It does not matter. What matters is that this house exists, and it shouldn’t. Not the way I first saw it. Not the way that any of us first saw it. We were all shocked. First, by the thought that a house this bad could exist, next by the thought that four people lived in it.
When you drive up the long, dirt driveway, the first thing that bothers you is how overgrown everything is. However, when you see the house itself, the lawn is an afterthought. There is a rusty water tank that either supports or is supported by the rotted wood that makes the frame of the house. Beside the house is a beat-up, green, antique truck that was probably gorgeous in its day. It might still have been, were it not overflowing with years of garbage. As four teenagers, myself included, took in the scene that lay before us, the only thing that made it any prettier was the smile on the face of the woman standing in the doorway. Her radiant smile could only be outdone by that of her little boy as he ran out the door from behind her.
I will never be able to comprehend the incredible courage it takes to have a group of complete strangers – the majority of whom are teenagers – come into your home, go through it piece-by-piece, throw away stuff, clean it up, and hand it back to you saying, “Thanks, I had fun!” It must be so incredibly hard. Hard to be able to confront the fact that you need help. Hard to let people see you in a position of need. Hard to have things you see as memories, seen by someone else as trash.
After getting a grip on reality – for, surely this was reality in the bitterest sense – we were told what we were to do. We had to take this house and its uninhabitable conditions, and make it good enough to be a home. I, personally, didn’t see how we, a small group of teenagers and two adults, were supposed to do this all by ourselves. It did not take us long to realize that we were not alone. There was the brother, the uncle, the friend, and the two contractors that came to help. Not to mention the mother and her older son who came to greet us and stayed to help. Suddenly it began to seem like we might be able to do it. Still, we only had one week.
The first thing we had to do was remove the freezer that blocked the front hallway. The front entrance led to two makeshift bedrooms (which the mother had built herself) and a small kitchen. The kids (one daughter and two sons) had to climb over the freezer in order to reach their bedrooms. Apparently what happened was that the mother had bought or received a large amount of meat at one time, and so she put it all in the freezer. However, the freezer had no electricity, and they couldn’t eat all of the meat before it started to rot. It began to smell, so they simply didn’t open the freezer anymore.
After much maneuvering, we were able to pull it out of the hallway and the house. We dragged it away from the house before we opened it. When we did no one could get within ten feet from it without getting sick. We came back the next day and it was literally black with flies. We decided for health reasons that we would have to trash it.
Our next job was to strip all the rooms entirely. There had been a flood the past year and all of the wood floors were saturated and rotting. The ceiling was drooping and the insulation had started to fall out. We had to remove all of the furniture and other items. A professional worked with the mother and teenaged daughter to determine what could be thrown out and what should be saved. We trashed the stove, the refrigerator, three beds, two couches, and tons of old toys among other things. At the end of the day, we stood back and looked at the pile of trash. It was a fair monument to the work accomplished, however it was soon dwarfed by the amount of work yet to be done.
We swept all the floors and let them air dry for a day. Meanwhile, two of my teammates and I stripped the insulation out of the ceiling. That day it was incredibly hot, and when we came out of the house (which had no air conditioning), we were all sweating and gasping for air. Next, we put in new insulation and ceiling tiles. It looked great and we were very proud of our work.
While we worked on the ceiling, the contractors and uncle worked on the roof above us. They constructed an ’empty level’; a short second level above the original roof for the sole purpose of protecting and strengthening the roof and house. With a dry house underneath the new roof, we began putting new rugs in the living room and bedrooms and tile in the kitchen. Next, we moved in their new appliances. They got a new refrigerator, a new couch, a new bed, a set of bunk beds, and lots of other stuff like cleaning supplies and stuffed animals. The place looked completely transformed inside!
I know that if I had never seen the original product but just the finished house, I would probably still think it was a mess. That is to say, we could not fix everything. This family will still have no bathroom in the house and have to use a port-a-john. They will still have three rusted-out cars on their overgrown lawn. Their house will never be perfect. But if they have for each other the same love that they showed us, they will have a perfect home.