Building homes and futures: Habitat for Humanity helps families — and career-seeking students

08/26/2014 6:46 PM

08/27/2014 5:36 PM

Olathe North High School student Bekah Volner was hard to miss among the group of builders working on a Heartland Habitat for Humanity house in central Olathe one sunny day in March. In a sea of standard-issue yellow hard hats, she was the builder sporting a hot pink one. It was on loan from one of the adults supervising the group from the Olathe School District’s Construction Trades Program.

This isn’t your typical high school wood shop class. Here, students in the two-year career and technical education program are learning hands-on skills that will take them from high school to the real world.

Not only are they learning the ins and outs of the construction business, they also are helping to make home ownership a reality for a family selected through the Kansas City-based Heartland Habitat for Humanity. As part of their course work, each year students in the Construction Trades Program help build a new Habitat house for one lucky family.

The program is run through the Olathe Advanced Technical Center, housed in a new building located next to Olathe North. This past school year, the program, which is open to juniors and seniors, served 18 students from the Olathe, Blue Valley and Spring Hill school districts along with the Kansas School for the Deaf.

Volner, who graduated last spring, was in the second year of the program, which meant she was an old pro on that March day when it came to new home construction. The year before, she had helped build a Heartland Habitat for Humanity home for another Olathe family.

“The only projects I had ever done were inside,” said Volner. “So to build it from the ground up was exciting to see the whole process. It was amazing and the family was so excited and I felt so good being able to do it for them.”

That family that Volner spoke so proudly of helping is Charles and Dessiree Monnott and their daughter Anabella. Walk into their cheery, bright living room with its pale green walls and sleek leather furniture and it’s hard to imagine that this house was a school project not long ago.

The Monnott family took the keys to their house on South Keeler Street in Olathe last September. One week later, Dessiree found out she was expecting the couple’s second child. It was a dream come true for a family that once thought home ownership was out of their reach.

“After Anabella was born, we talked about getting a house,” Dessiree Monnott said. “Someone talked to us about Habitat but we didn’t think it was possible at the time. We later went to the Habitat office and applied. We visited the address and decided we liked the area. And then they called us and said our application was approved.”

The students from the Construction Trades Program weren’t the only ones working to build the home from the ground up. As is typical of most Habitat houses, Charles and Dessiree were required to put in 350 hours of sweat equity working on the house. Fifty of those hours were spent in a class designed to educate people on the realities of home ownership.

Tom Lally is the executive director of Heartland Habitat for Humanity. Five years ago the Olathe School District contacted him about developing a partnership. Knowing how expensive land in Johnson County was, Lally thought that partnering with Olathe would help with the organization’s fundraising efforts.

“It provides incentives for funders to take notice that it’s no longer just Heartland but a communal event,” Lally said. “We are bringing in students and the community and showing that all players and results are legitimate and will be what funders and the community have been promised,” Lally said.

The whole mission of Heartland Habitat for Humanity is to eradicate substandard housing by building decent, affordable housing, Lally said. Candidates are chosen for a Habitat house based on income. For a family of four, that means the total household income is usually 30 percent to 60 percent of the local area median income.

The houses are offered interest-free. The average Habitat homeowner will end up with a 30-year mortgage of around $500 a month, including both principal and escrow for real estate taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Not bad for a three-bedroom, two-bath and one-car-garage home.

Together, Heartland Habitat for Humanity and students from the Construction Trades Program have built three houses since the partnership began.

But before Heartland can start the process of building the house, they first have to raise money. Habitat typically needs to raise $140,000 for a house this size. That price covers everything from materials and contractors to volunteer coordination and insurance.

But Lally believes you can’t put a price tag on the life lesson that students in the Construction Trades Program are getting by signing on to help build a Heartland Habitat home.

“What’s really beneficial is planting the seed in the students’ minds about becoming civically active and being part of their community,” Tom Lally said. “They get so much education about community and civic involvement by building alongside the eventual homeowner.”

That sense of service is echoed among many of the students. On one hand, instructors are teaching students the tricks of the trade so they can go on to a career in the construction industry. On the other hand, they are teaching them something far more valuable: how to go forth and serve their community in the future.

It’s a lesson Blue Valley Northwest senior Reid Thomas is clearly learning.

“It’s great knowing you are building a house for a family,” said Thomas, who is in his second year of the program this school year. “I like giving back to people who need it.”

“Somebody bring the miter saw and set it up here,” Gary Anderson calmly instructed his students one cloudy but warm Monday morning in April.

Anderson teaches the Construction Trades Program and is in charge of the hard-working group of students. He is a gentle and reassuring presence as he shepherds the students through the several-months-long building process. Building houses is something he knows a lot about, having spent more than 30 years in the construction business as a carpenter.

Now, he is passing along his knowledge to the next generation of builders.

On this morning the rhythmic buzzing of a circular saw operated by Blue Valley High School then-senior Keith Mulligan suddenly came to a halt as Anderson calmly waved his hands at Mulligan to stop the machine. Mulligan promptly turned off the machine as Anderson approached and patiently corrected him on how to properly operate it.

“It’s a safety thing so the saw doesn’t kick back at him and hurt him,” Anderson said matter-of-factly.

Instructing his class on how to safely build a quality home is a lesson that Anderson constantly strives to teach. The students have become accustomed to his corrections, which are always made in a patient voice.

“That’s how we learn,” Spring Hill then-junior Tyler Lewis said. “That’s what this is, learning now so we don’t make bigger mistakes later.”

Anderson is keenly aware that he is preparing a lot of these students for their future career. In a program like this one, that takes many forms. Some, like Bekah Volner, will go on to a four-year university to study construction management or, in her case, civil engineering. Others may decide to pursue a commercial apprenticeship. In fact, the Construction Trades Program has an articulation agreement with the Western Training Facility in North Kansas City, which provides training in skilled construction crafts. This means that if students coming out of the program meet their class requirements, they will be given preferential consideration for a four-year apprenticeship. Starting pay for an apprentice carpenter is around $17.63 an hour. But once the apprenticeship is complete, commercial carpenters can expect to earn around $49 an hour including benefits.

The program prepares students for all kinds of career paths including future jobs as building inspectors, wind turbine installers or insurance claim adjusters, Anderson said.

“One of the things I try to dispel is that it is just hammer and nails,” Anderson said. “It is such a broad field and there are so many jobs that have a connection to construction.”

And to prepare them for a life outside the classroom, the program even helps train them in interviewing and resume-writing skills.

Hands-on learning is the name of the game for students in this program. Students only spend 15 percent of their time in the classroom. While Anderson teaches concepts in the classroom and lab, it’s the job site where students really learn. Here, they apply what they’ve been taught as they work on every component of home building, including framing, electrical, plumbing, cabinetry and roofing.

When 2014 Olathe North graduate Cody Davidson began the program two years ago as a junior, he had never even operated power tools. Now, he’s looking forward to a career as a union carpenter.

“It was scary at first, but after a while I got used to it,” Davidson said. “I have a lot more confidence than last year, because I know I can do it.”

Davidson would eventually like to own his own business.

It’s the same dream 2011 Olathe East High School graduate Kyle Lance, now 21, had when he completed Anderson’s program. Now, he owns a residential remodeling business where he puts into practice the skills and high standards that Anderson instilled in him.

“These students are being taught the skills of the real world,” Lance said. “They are taught that you need to show up on time and not be on your cellphone. And these students are going to redo a project and redo it until it’s up to the standard it needs to be.”

Lance credits Anderson with teaching him the most important skill he’s learned: To take pride in your work.

“They didn’t just teach you how to build a house, but how to present yourself to the world and to an employer,” Lance said. “Sometimes I do three bids a day, and if I go in there and don’t present myself well, they are probably not going to hire a 21-year old kid.”

Bill Christie, owner of Johnson County Siding and Window Co., agrees with Lance that the program prepares students well. Christie has hired a graduate of the Construction Trades Program and would feel confident hiring another one of Anderson’s graduates in the future.

“They bring a skill set of being able to have general knowledge of construction and how to use the tools,” Christie said. “They understand how to work and are trained on what a work day looks like.”

The repetitive sound of hammers pounding nails into wood served as the background noise as Anderson assigned his students tasks on a spring work day.

“We’ll be working on the stairs so I will need one or two people down and two up,” Anderson told the small group of students gathered around him.

Nearby stood 35-year-old Gabe Snowden holding his 21/2-year-old daughter, Ashlyn. Snowden shares custody of Ashlyn with her mother, with whom he shared a three-year relationship. He is hoping to give his daughter a life better than his own rough childhood. This house is an important first step.

Father and daughter were quiet observers of the morning’s work.

“I picture her in the future running up and down the stairs,” a soft-spoken Snowden said while the flurry of building activity continued behind him.

The single dad and Navy veteran from Kansas City, Kan., will raise his daughter, whom he affectionately calls Princess, in this home. It sits next door to the Monnotts’ home built by the Construction Trades students last year.

The home’s approximately 1,400 square feet will seem spacious to Snowden, who at the time lived with his daughter in a two-bedroom apartment that’s part of campus housing for Kansas City Kansas Community College. That’s where he was working part-time as a resident assistant while also holding down a full-time job building trucks on the assembly line at the Ford plant in Claycomo.

His monthly mortgage of around $500 will be less than the more than $700 a month the apartment would typically rent for in that area. He’s looking forward to many things about the new house, but one will be the opportunity to quit living paycheck-to-paycheck. It will also give him the freedom to provide other opportunities for his daughter that he might not have been able to afford, whether it be a gymnastics class or a short trip to Branson.

Like the Monnotts, Snowden didn’t know a lot about the Heartland Habitat for Humanity program when he initially heard about it.

“I knew it existed but I had no clue what it was,” Snowden said. “There are so many families out there trying and trying to seek out a better life. Their motto is a hand up and not a handout.”

Like other Habitat families, Snowden spent hours after his job working on the house alongside community volunteers. Though he didn’t work on the house at the same time as the Construction Trades Program students, he got to meet them on occasion and observe their work. He said he is beyond grateful for their hard work as they helped him build a better life for himself and his daughter.

“They are definitely appreciated,” Snowden said in a voice filled with emotion. “They are laying their hand on a 21/2-year-old girl to give her a home.”

“Nice to see you,” Bekah Volner cheerfully called out to Gabe and Ashlyn Snowden when she spotted them at the work site one spring morning.

Volner was carefully perched on a ladder held by Olathe North classmate Allison Sheil. The two were installing the wood trim around the windows of Snowden’s house.

Suddenly, Volner quickly made her way back down the ladder.

“Oh, we forgot the screws,” Volner told Sheil.

As Volner prepared to climb the ladder again, Sheil repositioned it for her.

“Closer?” Sheil asked Volner.

The two had each other’s backs as they worked among the mostly male group of student builders.

“I’m glad there are two girls in the program,” Sheil said. “We stick together.”

The whole group of students worked well as a team. Around the corner from where Volner and Sheil worked, three other students were harmoniously putting up siding with a nail gun. When the tool got jammed, they headed over to Olathe North then-senior Cody Kremer, who quickly fixed the nail gun so the students could get back to their task.

A helpful work environment and sense of teamwork are things that Anderson has worked hard to foster among his students. Many have developed friendships outside the classrooms, even while attending different high schools. Anderson and his students meet for breakfast once a quarter, just to further develop those team building skills.

Anderson knows that the group’s collective pride in helping a family in need is another way the team has bonded.

“I think that the community service aspect gives them a perspective of how it benefits someone,” Anderson said. “It takes on even more meaning because they have met the homeowner.”

And that’s exactly the important lesson in community service that Heartland Habitat for Humanity’s Tom Lally is certain is being taught amid all of Anderson’s lessons in reading blueprints and operating power tools.

“Twenty or 30 years from now they will drive by that house with their own kids and show them what they built and know that they were part of the community,” Lally said.

By the end of May when school let out for the summer, the students finished their part of the building process. The roof was on, and the windows, doors and siding were all in. Next up: teams of volunteers from Heartland Habitat for Humanity would work eight hours a day for five days a week in order to get it move-in ready by August.

Little Ashlyn Snowden was a bundle of energy during the official house blessing for her new home on July 25. She was busy turning somersaults in the living room and sliding down the plastic covered stairs protecting the carpet. The stairs led to her bedroom where she would celebrate another milestone: moving from a crib to a big-girl bed.

“All she can talk about is her big bed like Daddy’s — no more crib,” Snowden said.

The house was packed for the day’s joyous celebration. In fact, it was one of the largest-attended Heartland Habitat house blessings to date. Several of Snowden’s family members were there, including his mom, stepfather, sister and cousins. They were joined by Gary Anderson and several of the students from the Construction Trades Program. It was their first chance to see their completed project.

“Students have a hard time picturing what the finished product will look like and they are always amazed how it turns out,” Anderson said. “They take so much pride in it and they can’t believe they helped build it.”

An American flag flew outside the front of Snowden’s home, in homage to his military service. Inside, an affiliate chaplain for Heartland Habitat for Humanity presented Snowden with a Bible.

Snowden was presented with other gifts too — a basket of cleaning supplies from one sponsor and gift cards from another. Then there was the surprise gift from the pastor who runs the church across the street from Snowden’s house: a check to help him buy a few things he might need for the new house.

The kind gestures were all a little bit overwhelming for Snowden.

“I wore some big sunglasses to try and hide the tears,” Snowden said. “But they are tears of joy. The feelings are overflowing. The thought that Ashlyn is now going to have a place to do cartwheels and somersaults to her heart’s delight is wonderful.”

On Friday, Aug. 15, the day that Snowden has dreamed about for years finally arrived. He closed on the house and spent what will be his first of many nights there. By the following week, he and Ashlyn were settling in nicely, enjoying all of the space and comforts of life in their own home.

It’s been a long, hard journey for Snowden, and sometimes he still can’t believe that he and his daughter now have a permanent place to call home.

“I’m just excited that this process is coming to an end,” Snowden said. “It still doesn’t feel like it is real. But now that I have moved in, I think it will finally hit me.”

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