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Originally published Friday, November 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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A vacation with heart and hammer

Junior Wilson was holding court for a group of vacationers amid a pile of lumber and a pair of sawhorses. He called it "Junior's School...

Los Angeles Times

JACKSON, Miss. — Junior Wilson was holding court for a group of vacationers amid a pile of lumber and a pair of sawhorses. He called it "Junior's School for the Carpentry Impaired."

"You'll use four nails on this stud," he said, demonstrating proper hammering technique. Three or four strikes to each nail, and it was home. I took a turn. Twenty-eight strikes and my first nail still hadn't flattened into the stud.

"You're being too nice to it," said a woman working nearby. "Knock the hell out of it." Everyone laughed.

The group was good-natured — especially considering the sun hadn't risen yet — and good-intentioned: All were volunteers with the shared goal of rebuilding homes lost to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some had flown or driven across the nation to be here late last month when Habitat for Humanity International launched its newest project, Operation Home Delivery.

Helping hurricane victims

Habitat, a nonprofit organization that has built more than 200,000 houses worldwide, moved quickly after Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast in late August. Less than 36 hours after the hurricane made landfall near New Orleans, Habitat had a new home page on its Web site: "Help hurricane victims rebuild their lives!" More than 60 houses have already been framed; thousands are on the drawing boards. For the most part, they will be built by volunteers, many of whom will do so on their vacation.

Philanthropic tours — vacations with heart — have been on the rise since the tsunami devastated parts of South Asia in late 2004. Thousands of volunteers have spent the past 10 months cleaning beaches, restoring temples, and building houses and schools. Habitat is one of the groups involved; it alone has built or repaired about 2,000 homes in Thailand, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Information


Habitat for Humanity: For information, see www.habitat.org. The organization has hundreds of affiliated groups throughout the U.S., including more than a dozen in Washington. To contact the Seattle/South King County group: www.seattle-habitat.org/ or 206-292-5240.

Seattle Times staff

But people who want to add meaning to their vacations don't need to go abroad to do so. Volunteer vacations have been a developing segment of the American travel industry for decades. In the United States, altruistic travelers can repair and build trails with the American Hiking Society, keep track of bottlenose dolphins for the Oceanic Society or work on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's reservation in South Dakota with Global Volunteers. Most of the trips are sponsored by nonprofit groups; many are partially tax deductible.

Organizers say they're a way for people to give back while they're getting away. "It's travel that feeds the soul," says Bud Philbrook, co-founder of Global Volunteers.

Although no one keeps statistics, most groups say disasters cause spikes of interest in philanthropic travel. Habitat's Web site has registered more than 25,000 volunteers since Katrina crashed ashore. And donations have topped $42.5 million. "People want to help," said Paul Leonard, the organization's chief executive.

That was the sentiment that drove the Habitat group in Jackson.

Doug Shade flew in from Phoenix; Larry Orsini wheeled his RV south from Olean, N.Y.; Georgia residents Fitz and Diane Wickham gave up a vacation in California to come here.

Like many Americans, they groped for words when they talked about the devastation in the Gulf region. All said they wanted to do something, to lend a hand. Habitat gave them the means.

They sawed and hammered, carried and lifted. Regardless of their building skills, they were able to help.

"Spending four days at a beach didn't seem right after the hurricanes," Diane Wickham said. "It's wonderful to be a part of this. To see a bunch of pieces of wood and all of a sudden walls are going up and you know it's going to become a home."

At home and abroad

For Habitat, which has 1,700 member groups throughout the world, Katrina's devastation and the uncertainty of where and when new homes could be built called for a new plan. Habitat's solution is Operation Home Delivery — framing houses at a few U.S. sites, packaging the components in shipping containers and sending them to the Gulf Coast to be completed when an infrastructure is in place. Because of Jackson's proximity to New Orleans — it's a three- to four-hour drive — it was considered an operations base.

Habitat managers readily acknowledge that all the program's details haven't been worked out yet. "We're inventing the airplane while we're flying," said Fred Angelo, construction manager for the Jackson affiliate.

But the opportunity to make a difference was so great that the group "jumped into the middle of this troubled water," said Leonard. "I think we can demonstrate what a group of committed people can do when they put their hearts, minds and hammers together."

Habitat history

Habitat, founded in 1976 in Georgia as a Christian ministry, is a favorite of former President Jimmy Carter, who went on his first trip with the group in 1984 and has spent a week building houses with the organization each year since.

Habitat homeowners aren't just given the houses: They must qualify, make a down payment, invest 500 hours of sweat equity in the construction and be responsible for monthly mortgage payments and upkeep.

Habitat also sponsors about 400 building trips abroad each year. Volunteers pay their own way — each spending about $100 a day, plus airfare — to work on homes in places such as El Salvador, Ethiopia, Senegal, New Zealand, Honduras and Chile.

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