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Connecting with Community: Habitat for Humanity

By Mia Benjamin

Of all the smells I associate with autumn — crispy leaves, fresh apples, chilly air — one has been conspicuously absent. I will forever equate that smell — the distinct fragrance of pine sawdust — with weekly Habitat for Humanity builds during the fall of my freshman year.

Unfortunately, building has been put on hold for the last two years while our local Habitat affiliate has been fundraising. Stepping onto the brand new Habitat construction site in Cornwall last Saturday and inhaling the sawdusty scent of new construction restored a little bit of balance in my world.

As a first-year working for Habitat, I appreciated the chance to get to know other students from all across campus with whom I would never have crossed paths with otherwise. There’s something about building a home with someone that’s different from sitting in class or sharing a meal in the dining hall. I found that when you hold the end of a board for someone as they saw it in half or when you problem solve together about how to install a window, the sense of a common goal transcends the awkwardness of first encounters and any differences in age, major or hometown.

So I kept coming back, loving the feeling of returning to campus at noon and already having done something substantial for the day, no matter how little schoolwork would get done later that afternoon.

One Saturday, a smaller number of college volunteers showed up for the build. Initially I was disappointed, but then I spent the morning getting to know two of the retiree volunteers who came with their church group.  Working side by side with them, I heard plenty about the grandkids, their own funny college stories and their take on local town politics. Most importantly, I learned why they were there on a chilly Saturday morning lending a hand.

I don’t remember exactly what we were doing — perhaps mudding some drywall or tacking down tar paper — but I do remember the extra meaning their words added to the work.  They understood, better than I ever had, that they were not helping to build a house, but rather a home — the beginnings of stable life for a young family that had gotten knocked around by life.

When I began to attend the Addison County Habitat for Humanity meetings, I started getting rides from different members of the board.

One Thursday of each month I am able to learn something new about what motivates each member to donate so much of his or her time and energy to the cause. What strikes me the most about these car conversations is the sense of optimism and responsibility each board member has toward those who are seen as fellow neighbors going through difficult times.

While other charities like Charter House and the Vermont Foodbank address the needs of the least fortunate in our community, Habitat for Humanity reaches out to families silently struggling with difficult housing costs. They provide an opportunity for hard-working, responsible families to become proud owners of a home they’ve built with volunteers.

Every so often, when financial concerns and talk of business bogs down discussion, one of the board members will pause to remind the group of the mission and vision we share. In those moments, I look around in gratitude for the inspiring friends I’ve made and for what they’ve taught me about building strong communities.

Last year, I was amazed to learn from the board that a student named Jennifer Jensen started Habitat for Humanity of Addison County in 1997. From her research on housing needs in Addison County, Jensen found that 21.6 percent of homeowners and 39.9 percent of renters met the federal definition of cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs.

Armed with this information, Jennifer put up flyers around town, challenging the community to come together to form a Habitat affiliate to address those needs. The community responded whole-heartedly — to this day, Habitat for Humanity of Addison County draws from a large committed donor and volunteer base, including students from the College.

The Middlebury Habitat for Humanity group is more than a college club to me. It epitomizes the healthy and dependable relationship between town and college, and the network of support it forms for those community members who have fallen on hard times.

Getting to know dedicated and compassionate older people in the town of Middlebury and the surrounding area has reminded me that community service is not just a high-school résumé builder. Community service is the life-long habit of setting aside a few hours a week to dedicate yourself to strengthening the community you belong to.

It took me several weeks of Habitat for Humanity participation to realize that the community in which students live extends beyond College Street — that there are exciting, wise and passionate people to befriend outside of Bi Hall and Battell Beach.

The truth is that college is not a four-year working vacation from the obligations we have to our neighbors. We are living in the real world right now. For the next four years, or three, or two or one, this is our community. Let’s get to know our neighbors.

Come get sawdust in your hair every Saturday with the Habitat club! Email us at [email protected]

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