After thoroughly enjoying our first experience volunteering as Care-A-Vanners with Habitat for Humanity in Pagosa Springs, Colorado in June, we adjusted our schedule for the summer to return to the very same place for another two-week commitment. We knew that the experience could be very different because of the composition of a new volunteer group, but we knew that we would like to work again with the same crew of locals including the (paid) construction supervisor, the retired lawyer who serves as volunteer assistant construction supervisor, several local volunteers we befriended, and of course the spunky woman who will be purchasing the home (Brandy). We also knew that the house would be at a different stage of construction, giving us insight into totally different building processes.
Our experience this time around was quite different from our first stint, which emphasized just how much our coworkers influence our enjoyment of volunteering. Allow me to describe our crew. There were only four other Care-A-Vanners besides us, consisting of a couple from Iowa and two single guys. They were all over 70 years old (we are in our 40s and 50s), the men had all served in the military (we are not vets), and all of them seemed like ardent Fox News watchers (uh, definitely not). The Iowa people actually live in the district of the horrifying Congressman Steve King. I was too afraid to ask what they thought of him, knowing I would need to work with them for two weeks. The one time I made the mistake of getting into a semi-political discussion on a historical topic with one of our coworkers, I was screaming inside my head the entire time. We have spent most of our lives on the east coast in large urban areas, and we are comfortable in multicultural communities. We had very little in common with the rest of our crew, and to make matters worse they had all previously met one another on prior Habitat builds and had already established their shared outlook on life. Needless to say, we didn’t socialize much with our coworkers outside of work.
One notable impact of the different volunteer demographics was that the whole atmosphere took on a decidedly Christian slant. Habitat for Humanity is indeed a Christian organization, but welcomes people of all faiths and backgrounds as volunteers and as prospective homeowners. The team leaders on our first build put this into practice by keeping the morning devotions pretty neutral; we started our days with parables about teamwork or inspirational poems about how much good volunteers can bring about. Then we had a short prayer for a safe and productive day, and we were off to work. The local volunteers were quite overtly religious, but our Care-A-Vanner team leaders made it clear that all the religious activity (including morning prayers) was completely optional. This time around, morning devotion was more like Sunday school, with lengthy exegesis of Biblical passages and really long, drawn-out prayers. Then every day just as we were getting ready to tear into our hard-earned lunch, we had more praying. And every time our group gathered for an evening event (pot luck dinner, cookout) there was even more praying. It was all a bit much, and we found it off-putting.
Although we are not religious, we have no issue with people who are. There’s no question that many churches inspire their members to perform a great deal of public service both informally in their communities and through other non-profits like Habitat, so we’ve come to expect that some portion of our fellow volunteers at any community service event will be motivated by religious beliefs. We appreciate that spiritual life is very important to many people. We just don’t want to feel like we are on the receiving end of a prosthelytizing campaign. I can’t characterize Habitat for Humanity as a whole based on the actions of a few volunteers in one particular place. But in the interest of the continued success of a worthy organization — and one that operates worldwide — I will say that Habitat really needs to make an effort to be welcoming to the 70% of the world’s population that is not Christian.
Our coworkers on this build weren’t totally bad people (they spend their time volunteering to help others) but between their outdated gender stereotypes and their seeming total lack of awareness that the world is a diverse place and people have a lot of different beliefs, these folks seemed like relics from another era. It made our overall experience somewhat awkward and uncomfortable — and scary for Ken, who was constantly worrying that I would break into a rant in response to one of the reactionary comments of our coworkers. We learned during this build that the average age of Care-A-Vanners is 72, and this build was probably much more representative than our initial experience, which featured almost exclusively people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. As it turns out, a generation really does make a difference.
One reason our work group was so small was that a couple dropped out shortly before the planned build. These two people are apparently dedicated vegans who don’t wear leather on principle, so they were unsure whether they had appropriate footwear to meet the Habitat chapter’s site safety requirements. They also wanted to bring their dog on site, which the local affiliate does not allow. Ken and I discussed many times how much we wished they had not cancelled, since I think their presence would have changed the group dynamic by balancing it all out a bit more.
Despite the somewhat uninviting social environment, we did still enjoy working on the build. Our first volunteer gig mostly involved framing the exterior and interior walls, installing roof trusses, and sheathing the exterior walls. This time, when we arrived the house had a complete roof in place, electrical and plumbing systems were installed, and we were focused on finishing the exterior work. Our group installed and trimmed the final few windows and doors, prepped soffit for installation, and created concrete forms for the front sidewalk and front and rear steps with concrete being poured on our penultimate day on site. But the main activity for our two weeks was installing siding on the house.
This meant that we honed our precision measurement skills, and also did plenty of work with my good friends the saws (chop, table, skill, sabre, and jig). Cutting out notches for hose bibs, working around door and window trim, and cutting angles to perfectly match the pitch of the roof required plenty of concentration and detail work, which made the process surprisingly slow. So we were quite satisfied that we sided virtually the entire house during our stay. And just like in our first visit, we really enjoyed working with the local team and getting to know them even better. Talking with homeowner-to-be Brandy and her friend/co-volunteer Barbara gave me a lot of information about the history of this area and an appreciation for the challenges of living in a high-cost community.
Overall, our second Habitat gig wasn’t as enjoyable as the first, but we are still glad that we participated. We continued to develop our construction skills, which was one of our goals in volunteering. It was eye-opening to see how different the experience could be with a different team leader and group of volunteers. I think that in the future we would be most likely to volunteer with Habitat in a more diverse community, where we would expect a bit more appreciation for people from different backgrounds. We had very positive experiences volunteering with Habitat in Tucson and also in south Florida before we hit the road, and I think the diversity of those communities makes a significant difference in the tone of the local affiliate.
Away from the job site
Since our work schedule involved only 4 days of work per week, with three days off each week we had time to explore more of the area. As usual, we made time for hiking. Our main accomplishment was hiking on another section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. We previously did an easy section while camped near Grand Lake on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, and this stretch was much more strenuous. The trail for the Alberta Peak hike starts at Wolf Creek Pass, elevation 10,857, and gains another 1000+ feet as it winds along the Continental Divide. We enjoyed long views from the spine of the continent as we wandered about 5 miles along the divide, even though the low-hanging clouds made for moody skies and the winds and high elevations made for a chilly day.
We also took time to check out some more of the local food and drink. Mountain Pizza and Taproom was a revelation, with some of the best pie we’ve consumed in a while. We ordered our pizza for takeout, and while we were waiting we enjoyed examining their high-tech beer and wine dispensing system. Diners eating in the restaurant get a bracelet with RFID and can pour themselves whatever they want from the taps; the bracelet records the total amount consumed and adds it to the tab. Instead of trying the local beer at Mountain Pizza, we went straight to the source with a visit to Riff Raff Brewing. The beer on tap was surprisingly good, with some very unique offerings. We normally don’t like fruit in our beer, but the El Duende green chili ale was a winner in our book, and the setting along the San Juan River was scenic and relaxing.
Next: we head to the vicinity of Crested Butte for mountain scenery and hiking.