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Cowboy Hard Hats & Neon Peeps

Justin’s Diamond RV Park was in a rural area about 25 minutes outside of South Tucson, just passed the intersection of Bopp and San Juoaquin Rds, where the neighbors sell hay and tamales from their front yard. When the road gets really bumpy and narrow, and the frequency of buildings dwindles to few and far between, it’s easy to start feeling a little insecure about your RV park choice. But more often than not, just as the doubts creep in, something like a beautiful white picket fence garnished with butterfly flags and spinning wind toys appears, inviting us into our next home.

Neighbor's yard.

Neighbor’s yard.

Justin’s wife Christine, the most friendly, talkative, generous Asian woman I’ve ever met, greeted me in the office to check in. It was a typical mobile home turned club house for the RV Park – complete with a full kitchen where fresh baked cookies had just been made. While I was writing my check for the week’s stay ( $25/night – no credit cards accepted at this park) the glorious smell was something I had to comment on. Christine took that opportunity to list off all the upcoming club house events, the ice cream social tomorrow afternoon, the all you can eat pizza dinner on Friday nights, and more. (These people really care about their business and their guests, and it pays them back 10-fold. Despite not having a pool or showers, most of the people at the park stay for months and months and come back every year.)

Mini-golf course in the middle of the RV Park

Mini-golf course in the middle of the RV Park

Our spot was Mountain View #9 at the back edge of the park which bumps right up against Tucson Mountain State Park. Along with my brochures and coupons for local attractions, Christine gave me a hiking trail map showing the 4 different trail heads that began from the park. “This your backyard!”, she said with a grin that lit up her entire face. And so it was. We raced through all the steps of our set up dance and set out for a walking tour. First, we twirled around the park to check out everyone else’s RV’s, toys, etc. and then we ventured out onto a trail. Pretty soon the mountains in the distance turned a soft lavender and the sun set on us before we could get very far out into our new desert backyard. We needed to hit the sack early that night anyway since Habitat for Humanity expected us at 7am the next morning.

Lavender Mountains

Lavender Mountains

Up until then we’d been flouncing around joyfully in our separation from time, hardly aware of the day of the week and only loosely aware of the hour in the day. It has been and will continue to be one of the supreme pleasures of this year, to wake up naturally in the morning when you’re body and mind are ready to be awake, to feel free of a hard schedule, timelines, deadlines, and external expectations. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not sleeping in really, still rising at 6:30 and 7am most mornings, it’s just the control of the thing that is so intoxicating, the personal choice of it. However, on this morning we needed help, there was an external expectation so we enlisted the alarm and it dutifully beeped us up at 5:30am.

Sunset in our backyard.

Sunset in our backyard.

As you would expect, the part of Tucson that the Habitat home sites were in was pretty rough. We drove through yards and lots that were lined with chain-link fences decorated by wind-tossed litter stuck in the holes. Broken bottles and fast food cups lined the street gutters, and most flat surfaces sported graffiti and not the kind that you would call art. We found the build site and as we turned down Cooper St. to park we saw a big group of people already circled up in front of one of the half-finished houses, so big and organized it made us think we were late. We rushed to hide a few of our valuables in the car, grabbed our water bottles and headed over. As we came up on the group, we were startled by a very loud noise and instinctively ducked our heads as a massive commercial airplane buzzed the rooftops. Of course, it was also right by the Tucson International Airport.

We weren’t late, it was just that the 40 kids (I say kids because they all looked to be in their early 20’s at most) from the nearby Air Force Base were early. We were expecting a women’s build day, but instead we were paired up with a mixed crowd, mostly men, from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which was also adjacent to this neighborhood adding to the sky noise. We joined the circle and soon their captain stepped out into the middle to address the group, thanking them for volunteering and saying that it was the largest turn out from the D-M A.F.B he’s ever seen. It took a few minutes for Ali and I to adjust and relax into the fact that we were OK, we were in the right place, but it was definitely a scenario we hadn’t expected.

After a roll call for the soldiers, which of course Ali and I were not on, the Habitat leader, Dave, took over and began his introduction. He explained the mission of Habitat for Humanity, how the homes are not given to the new home owners for free, that they are required to pay a small mortgage and put in 200 hours of sweat equity working on their own homes and others. He described how monumental home ownership was for most of their recipients, immigrants who have barely had four walls and a roof to call home, let alone running water, electricity or heating. What we were doing, giving our time to build these homes, was extremely important and life-changing for someone. He then introduced us to the 2 other build leaders for the day (so that’s a total of 3) and wrapped up by asking if anyone had any questions, which received silence from all the young airmen and women. After a minute, one of the other build leaders named Bob who had a hard hat that was shaped like a cowboy hat, piped up with, “So was Habitat started by Jimmy Carter?”

Roll call for the Air Force.

Roll call for the Air Force.

Having just read a biography of Millard Fuller who is the real founder of Habitat for Humanity, I knew this was a common misperception about the group. I figured Bob was seeding the conversation with a point he felt was important, but I was surprised when Dave answered by simply saying that no, while Carter brought a lot of attention to the group, he didn’t start it. And he just left it at that. Habitat’s origins and Millard’s beliefs were deeply Christian, but as the group grew and the brand grew, the board of directors became increasingly more interested in treating the organization like a company, while Millard desperately wanted to remain faith-based so they eventually ousted Millard. I’d been reading about the new brand strategy, so it was intriguing to see it played out in a small way right in front of me.

But then, like a ping pong ball shooting back over the net, Dave announced that they always start a build day with a prayer and he asked for a volunteer. While I was still processing my thoughts about Millard and Habitat and it’s now clouded ties to Christianity, Allison stumbled out into the middle of the circle. Apparently, Bob with the cowboy hard hat had nudged her out, in effect volunteering her to lead the group in prayer. Ali looked at me, just a little stunned I thought – more like a little expectant she says, since she was hoping I might rescue her from her first task of the day and offer to step in. I didn’t.

Now Allison is not an atheist. She’s working on defining her spirituality and actively questioning, but if you stood both Millard and Ali on a linear scale that measured Christianity and their connection with those beliefs and practices, they’d be so far apart I doubt the two of them would be able to see each other, even with high-powered binoculars. As for me, I would probably be somewhere in between them, at a middle point where maybe I could shout out a really loud “amen” that both could hear faintly.

But despite her fish-out-of-water-ness, my girl rose the occasion. She prayed that all of us would be kept safe from injury, that we would all watch out for each other and work together well. She asked that our minds and hearts be 100% focused on our intentions for the day, the intention to help someone we don’t even know, and to trust that it would be a huge blessing in their lives, even though we wouldn’t actually see the end result of our effort. Later that morning, one of the build leaders thanked Ali for her prayer and said it was the best he’d heard in a long time. I was very proud.

After we were all prayed up, the build leader listed off some tasks for the day that we could migrate to which were spread out between several homes at 2 separate build sites. There was trench digging for plumbing, electrical work, driving a backhoe, painting over some graffiti, and prepping 2 buildings at a separate site for stucco. I think this was the first moment of the day when we started to realize that there might be an issue with the ratio of volunteers to work/leaders. There were only 2 hand held jack hammers and 8 shovels for the trench job, they needed just 2 guys for the electrical, one guy for the backhoe, one guy for the painting and that left the rest of us to grab a hard hat out of the box and walk over to the other site to do the stucco prep.

Stucco Prep

Stucco Prep

Bob, the cowboy, was the leader on our job site. He pried off a piece of plywood that was covering the entrance to one of the 2 story buildings, led us in through the interior framing and told the 25 of us who didn’t even fit inside the soon-to-be living room, “First we need to set up the scaffolding at both houses. You need 4 of those and 2 of those and 2 of those,” pointing to the pile of metal parts that were chained up on the floor. Being at the front of the group, Ali and I got started right away. We could each lift one of the metal parts by ourselves, but as we turned to exit the room we ran into a sea of blank kid-faces standing in our way. Being the bossy types, I mean natural leaders, that we are, we both started directing the kids, telling them which parts to pick up and to follow us.

Ali took half the kids to one house, I took the other half to the second house. The scaffolding wasn’t too complicated to figure out. Bob was there intermittently to offer an instruction or two, but we mostly worked it out as a team on our own. Ali came over to visit at the house I was working at and we reported back to each other that both we had to implement some creative thinking to get the scaffolds level. I was able to scrounge some spare blocks of wood and Ali’s team used the scaffold casters on their sides to prop up the errant legs in the uneven dirt. We shared a moment of patting ourselves on the backs, because we may not know diddly squat about construction, but we know how to listen, problem-solve and lead. We also took note of the kids lack of initiative and Bob’s absence.

So at that point, Ali and I were standing around with a group of about 10 kids staring at the side of one of the houses waiting for next steps from Bob when we got a little restless. There’s only so much admiration one can have for completed scaffolding, so we wandered over to the other house which had already gotten under way. Bob wasn’t there, but the air force captain and two attractive kids, one young man and the other a young woman, were up on the scaffold measuring out chicken wire, stretching it tight and stapling it with an air gun to the insulation on the side of the house. The captain was being VERY patient with the tiny-framed airwoman as she machine-gunned 7 staples into the siding at one spot, then crooked-stapled another section which had to be pulled out. Eight other kids, now make that 10 of us since Ali and I had arrived, were standing around just watching them – we were at a whopping 23% productivity.

Ali and I shared an “are you serious?!!” look at each other that encapsulated our frustration at both the pathetic stapling antics and our idleness. Ali percolated for about 72 seconds scanning the situation, identified a potential job and then set out to find Bob to validate it and the right tool to accomplish it. The chicken wire was half done on both houses, so in walking around the buildings Ali had noticed that the wire had only been cut out around some of the lower vents and windows, but others were still covered with the wire. It seemed obvious to her that a trim job was needed and so she set out to own that job. Bob approved. In typical construction worker fashion, she started trimming and I offered encouragement and supervision from behind. NICE cut!

Phew! 17 minutes of hard trimming and aggressive supervision later, we were once again idle. I headed over to the other house to see if their chicken wire/staple gun team had been assembled yet and sure enough a team of 3 was mounted on the scaffold while 10 bench players looked on. Just then a white van pulled up and spit out a cop and 7 men dressed in matching orange jump suits. The inmates dispersed throughout the job site with easy authority and immediately started in on projects. I just stood there with my mouth agape for a few minutes, lost in jealousy. They were so self-directed, so neon orange.

Not a real prisoner.  I didn't think they would appreciate their photo being taken.

Not a real prisoner. I didn’t think they would appreciate their photo being taken.

I know that in the reading of this, most of you can instantly put yourselves in our state of mind. It’s incredibly hard to stand around and feel useless or even worse, like a burden to an over-extended leader. We were trying hard not to complain, we just wanted to be useful. I didn’t care if it was cleaning up nails in the dirt around the job site, I would do that, just put me to work. Ok, so I did that for a while. There’s a cool pole with a magnet on the end that sucks up nails, sorta like a metal detector. DONE! What’s next boss? Wait, where’d you go boss?

It was an interesting day to say the least, one that didn’t really live up to my overly romantic expectations, but Habitat is an organization I’ve been interested in for a long time and I certainly won’t let this one experience define my opinion. I do think there was probably enough work for everyone that day even for all the non-skilled people, but it would have taken an incredibly organized leader or team of leaders being well-prepared in advance and armed with a very long list of tasks to keep that many people productive for 5 hours. I’m not even sure Bob knew how many volunteers he would have that day until he saw us all circled up that morning.

We finished our shift early and decided on the drive home that we would go ahead and cancel our two other volunteer days that were a week later since we’d heard they were also maxed out with volunteers. I guess between the Air Force Base, the University and the Arizona Prison system, Tucson Habitat has a ready-crop of man-power right at their fingertips. We definitely want to help, and home building is a deep interest of mine, but it was pretty clear that in this scenario Ali and I were not needed, we were overkill, like two small jelly beans at the bottom of an Easter basket full of chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps – neon orange ones that is.