June 19, 2007
By Rob Meysembourg
I’ve worked on a number of volunteer construction projects. Each one is unique, but they all have some things in common. Some of those things in common are: they are almost always run by people who have a huge heart for those who are receiving the homes built by the volunteers: no matter how well the inventory of tools and building supplies is maintained, you will usually need something that isn’t readily available. And probably the most universal commonality is that Monday morning will be chaotic…it always is. The reason for the chaos is that the new teams arrive Sunday night and converge at the main office on Monday morning at the same time – wanting to know what they will be doing and where. The only variable on this is how far into the day-or week- the chaos will extend. I feel that the further the chaos extends, the richer the experience of the build will be.
Pearlington was a very rich experience.
Monday morning started out seemingly light on chaos. Bob Putnam, the volunteer and construction coordinator, sent me to Ms. Johnnies’ house to show a crew of America Corp and Conservation Corp volunteers how to layout and build a set of stairs leading up to the front porch. The front porch was already built, the back porch was being built, and both would need stairs. All the new houses in Pearlington are at least 5’ off the ground, thus the need for stairs and porches.
I got set up and was making good progress when Rick, a staff person from PRC, stopped by. He asked me to come with him to another house to help that group get started on a porch, because their group had no one with enough experience to get them started. When we got there we were surprised to learn they did have someone to lead them: a contractor who is also an architect! I was free to go back to my first group at Ms. Johnnies’, where I had them fully trained in the fine craft of stair construction by noon.
After lunch Bob sent me to Ms. Thelma’s house to build stairs for her porch. It rained for about 10 minutes as I drove to her house and scoped it out. Although it was raining I was able to see that Ms. Thelma had no porch to build stairs to. I thought this may be of some interest to Bob, so I drove back to share my discovery with him. When I got to his office he was talking to a guy named Ryan. Ryan was leading a literal bus full of high school kids he was trying to find work for. Bob seemed just a tiny bit stressed. I waited. Finally Bob looked at me, probably hoping for some good news, so I smiled as I gave him my report. Bob actually seemed pleased to hear my news. He told me to lead Ryan and his Bus People to Ms. Thelma’s and have them build the porch! No problem, I said: do you have a plan? “Yes,” Bob said, pointing at his temple, “it’s right here!” I asked if I could get a copy of it, and he quickly sketched a few lines as he described his vision to me, handed me the sketch and off we went.
I arrived again at Ms. Thelma’s with the Bus People, who eagerly bounded off the bus ready to work! Now that it had stopped raining and I had a chance to walk the site, I made another discovery-no lumber on site to build with.
Back to the office with Ryan to share the news with Bob. When we walked in, Bob had news for me: seems the front porch at Ms. Johnnies’ fell off the house. (I guess Bob wasn’t content to only receive surprising news, he needed to spring it, too.) After learning no one was hurt, and a brief discussion about shared liability, I casually mentioned the apparent lack of lumber for Ms. Thelma’s porch. Bob didn’t seem too surprised. Seems 3 porch packages were delivered Friday, but none of them made it to the houses that they were expected at. Their whereabouts were currently unknown. No problem to Bob, though-he really is unflappable, which makes him perfect for this job. We were instructed to go back and dig footing holes for the porch posts. Ryan asked if there was any roofing work available, as he did know how to do that. Yes, there was a house that was half shingled that we could finish if we wanted to. As Bob gave Ryan a map and directions, I looked for shovels and post hole diggers. None available. Another volunteer who happened to hear me wailing offered to let us use his personal shovels and post hole digger.
Ryan and I headed back to Ms. Thelma’s, but decided to check out the possible roof job on the way. It was half roofed, but we didn’t see any shingle bundles or ladders…
Back at Ms. Thelma’s, the Bus People were getting antsy. They gathered around as I started measuring and stretching string to layout the footing holes for the 6’wide by 16’x26’ corner porch. I noticed that it took them less time to dig a footing hole than it took me to wipe off my glasses, which kept steaming up in the hot, humid weather.
After we got a number of holes dug, the Bus People called it a day. I headed over to Ms. Johnnies’ to investigate the porch collapse. Rick had gotten there just before me, and he had discovered the problem. Another group had built the porch the previous week, and had bolted it to the house at a point that was only ½” OSB, which is like plywood but not as strong. It should have been bolted through at least 2 thicknesses of 2” lumber. A problem to be resolved Tuesday morning.
By now it was about 4:00, the end of the workday. Rick took me down the block to show me his house. As much as I like construction and problem solving, the true highlight of the trip was the time the residents of Pearlington, like Rick, who shared their stories and a part of their lives with me. Each of them that I had a chance to talk with said how blessed they felt. They had all lost most everything that they owned, and have been living in cramped FEMA trailers for about a year and a half. Yet I never heard any complaints about anything. I guess in a sense they have walked in the valley of the shadow of death – the death of their material possessions. And they came out unencumbered by most of the things that take our focus away from where it should be: on our Savior, Jesus. And their lives do seem to be more sharply focused on Him as a result. Quite often during the week I heard residents exclaim “God is good!”
So, if you’re thinking of going to Pearlington to help, I have a couple of suggestions. First, pray about it. It may not be a trip for everyone, but I’m pretty sure anyone who goes will have an experience that will change them. Also, be prepared for anything. Go with the flow. Things can and will change often, and if you’re task and production oriented like me, it can seem frustrating. Don’t get frustrated or discouraged. Take advantage of any down time to get to know someone you’re working with. Most people are happy to share their story with you. And any work you get done during your stay is more than would have been done if you weren’t there. The folks there are thrilled that you cared enough about them to come at all, so being a beacon of light is more than enough.