Care-A-Vanning Redux in Pagosa Springs

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.

Habitat house when we arrived for our second build

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.

7 thoughts on “Care-A-Vanning Redux in Pagosa Springs”

  1. Oh man… I feel for you guys with this whole Habitat experience. We’ve noticed the lack of diversity through much of the country but when I think about it, most of our realization came from us looking around and noticing who was (and wasn’t) around us, not because of anything folks have said or done. In our experience, most people we’ve interacted with in our travels have stayed away from overtly religious or political conversations. On the other hand, being on various Facebook forums for RVers, I am reminded again and again that there are a huge number of people in this community who have vastly different beliefs and values than we do and – from the comfort of their computer screens – are much more likely to share them. It amazes me to see some of the commentary that comes up on these forums. That whole Mark Twain quote – about travel being fatal to prejudice and narrow mindedness? Yeah… not so much with some of these folks.

    I would have been extremely uncomfortable in your situation. You’re there to work and to volunteer, not to take part in religious activities (multiple times each day) and not to be made uncomfortable about your views. To me, if you’re involved in a program like that, religion and politics should just be off the table and it shouldn’t be apparent to anyone what anyone else thinks. And having been on the receiving end of the occasionally blatantly sexist comment, I wouldn’t be a fan of that either.

    Good for you for sticking with it and getting the job done. I’m not sure I would have been that dedicated. I agree that, going forward, the solution is probably to look for volunteer opportunities in more diverse communities. It’s just unfortunate it has to be that way.

    • We were pretty disappointed by the experience, especially since our first round with Habitat was so enjoyable. Leadership really does set the tone for the group! Coming from South Florida, we just assume that any random collection of people is going to include people who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or not religious at all, so going incredibly strong on Jesus talk is just NOT DONE. Obviously within a church group that would be different, but in this context we were just shocked by the approach taken by our volunteer leaders. Our core assumption that volunteer experiences shouldn’t be insulting to the volunteers was put to the test here, that’s for sure.

  2. I hope someone in the administration at Habitat for Humanity reads this post. Your comments and experience could really help the organization. I would have been very uncomfortable with the situation you found yourselves in, and I would have had a VERY difficult time not speaking up.

    These are difficult times in our country and in our world and this kind of shit needs to go away. Before we started traveling, I was concerned about leaving behind our beloved and liberal community of friends in Oregon. But for the most part, in our six years of full-time travels, we’ve found people across the country to be decent and respectful, even though they may have different religious or political views. However, we have also encountered a few narrow-minded, right-wing, so-called “Christian” assholes. In our experience, that has not been a generational thing. Sadly, we’ve met some frighteningly extremist 40-year-olds.

    • What made the whole thing very disorienting was that we really did feel like most of our coworkers were giving, caring people who treated us personally with kindness…. while at the same time behaving in a way that was pretty alienating and disrespectful to us (and any other non-Christians). I tried to reconcile these things by assuming that they might have meant well, but our coworkers were just clueless about how to behave in modern society.

  3. Well, shoot. Glad the build part went well. Sorry to hear that it was uncomfortable with the religious overload. I hope it hasn’t put you off the volunteer projects and the you find your next one less alienating. You can still be proud of your contribution and your gained construction skills — I am!

    • Despite the social discomfort, we still learned a ton and (I think) made important contributions to moving the house project forward so Brandy and her family can get even closer to owning their new home. We feel great about that, and will certainly look for further volunteer opportunities in the future. We might just be more selective about the location or the organization.


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