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One Month at a Time: Visiting teens highlight Habitat experience


Bill Lynch works with habitat for humanity to build a house in Charleston, West Virginia, on June 11, 2019.

I wasn’t on time for my second building session with Habitat for Humanity. I rolled into the house about ten minutes after eight.

Someone called out, “You’re late,” and I called back, “Go ahead and dock me for it.”

Everyone laughed and we got on with the business of figuring out what was going to be done and by whom.

I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I kind of wanted to follow Ray to maybe continue with building the steps, but I wondered if I ought to try something else.

As I was standing there, sort of trying to figure out my next step, Rob Schissler pressed the December 14, 2015, issue of “Sports Illustrated” into my hands.

“You should read this,” he said.

I barely knew what to do with it. Over the course of my life, I’ve only picked up “Sports Illustrated” a handful of times, even when the magazine was covering a sport I cared about — like competitive bikini modeling.

I’m not much of a sports fan, don’t follow sports, even when I’m halfway involved.

Last year, Ken Fogel, vice president of the West Virginia Power, invited me to read my own paper to keep up with who the ball club was playing while I was spending so much time at the ballpark — because I kept getting it wrong.

“Read the story about Deshaun Watson,” Rob told me.

So, I did.

In 2015, Deshaun Watson was a star sophomore quarterback for the Clemson Tigers and a Heisman trophy hopeful.

He’d also been raised in a house his mother got through Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn and his charity’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

Watson credited the home with stabilizing his life and helping to put him on the path that led him to Clemson and eventually into what’s becoming a pretty decent career in the NFL.

I’m really only guessing, based on what I found on the Wikipedia. I had no idea who he or Dunn was. I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl last year.

But Watson was a success story and Rob was just trying to illustrate that the benefits of these houses we were building went much further than providing the poor with a reasonable place to live.

A home of your own is much bigger than shelter. It can be roots and stability — a safe place.

I complain endlessly about my own house and the time involved with only halfway maintaining the property. It’s depressing how bad I am at keeping the place neat and fully functional. I hate how I sometimes feel like the place owns me, like I’m bonded to the land like a medieval serf and couldn’t get rid of it if I wanted to, but it’s still better than renting an apartment.

I’ve lived in nicer apartments than my house and leaving them wasn’t always my idea.

Getting a house from Habitat isn’t as easy as showing up at the agency’s office and telling them you want a house. There is a process and requirements. To get the house, you have to spend some time working on the job site, actually building a house. But so far, I’d only met volunteers.

Of course, who has time to go build a house in the middle of the week besides retirees and slacker journalists who wear comic book T-shirts to work?

I’d need to try back later.

I did get to meet some teenagers from Chicago. Twenty-six teenagers with four chaperones from St. Michael’s Parish in Orland Park, Illinois, spent a week with Habitat for Humanity in Charleston to help build houses.

It was an annual trip. St. Michael’s Parish has sent a group to Charleston every year for the last 21 years.

Rose Koch, the leader of the group and a chaperone, said, “For some of these kids, it’s their second or third time.”

Rose had come from Illinois all 21 times. She’d been coming since before Tiny was a manager for Habitat.

They couldn’t even bring everybody who wanted to come, she told me.

“We had to turn six away,” Rose said.

That seemed odd. This wasn’t exactly a fabulous getaway with sun, sand and frozen beverages, but then I thought about it. Charleston, West Virginia, was a long way from Orland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. It was a chance to travel, without your parents, but with your friends.

That didn’t sound so bad, and the kids didn’t sit around.

Tiny Hanshaw and the chaperones made sure of that.

The teenagers pulled weeds, painted walls, hung drywall and dug holes.

Somebody put a hammer drill in the hands of 16-year-old Hadley Nickels so she could punch a hole in a cinderblock wall to run an outside spigot through.

Nobody let me do that.

“It’s fun,” Hadley said, when I asked her why she’d volunteered to come to West Virginia.

Then she told me, “This is my second trip.”

The kids were eager to work and most of them hustled. Their energy under the hot sun seemed boundless. It was tiring watching some of them.

Not everybody was good at everything they put their hand to. I watched one kid paint the same two-foot square of wall for about 20 minutes without ever actually coating the entire surface.

Of course, he still painted considerably more than I did by just standing there watching him paint.

I never heard any of the teens turn down a request. Nobody shrugged and said, “I’m just going to go wait in the van.”

I was impressed and the more I thought about it, the more I thought maybe I’d have signed on for something like this when I was 16. Heck, it might not take a lot to convince me to sign on for something like this now, depending on the week.

Besides, it was kind of like a vacation. The kids weren’t being worked from dawn to dusk like they were on some kind of junior varsity chain gang. They laughed, joked around and sometimes sang as they worked.

When they weren’t working for Habitat, they enjoyed the city some.

They went to the mall. They had tickets to go see a baseball game at Appalachian Power Park. They all seemed to be having a good time.

Eventually, I wandered out to the back of the house where Ray was still working on the back steps from the week before. I wasn’t much needed for anything. Concrete needed to be poured for footers that go in the bottom of holes that would hold the posts that supported the platform the steps would lead to.

Mike Abernethy, a retired electrical engineer who’d spent a few decades working for ZMM Architects, asked me if I wanted to try tying rebar.

“Sure,” I said.

I didn’t know that was something people even did, but he showed me how to tie wire around short pieces of iron rebar to make a kind of grid.

The grids would go in the bottom of the holes before the concrete was poured. I never found out why, but figured it was important.

I did learn that Mike builds and restores wooden boats in his spare time.

With a small army of teenage bodies to take care of most of the unskilled labor, there wasn’t a lot for me to do all the time. This didn’t bother me. The volunteer orientation document mentioned that there would sometimes be some standing around, which is something I was good at, but I still managed to jump back in when scaffolding needed to be moved off the back of a house.

While there were a lot of people on the site that day, the two groups largely kept to their individual camps. The teenagers worked together in teams of three, four or five, while the retirees more or less did the same thing. Only occasionally did the two crossover and wind up on the same task.

These moments were scattered, but meaningful.

While one 15-year-old was swinging a pickaxe and using a shovel to flatten some ground to plant a ladder, one of the retirees walked over to him.

“Your hands would like you better if you had on a pair of gloves,” he said as he took the gloves off his hands and handed them over.

Panting slightly, but smiling, the young man said, “Thanks. I loaned out my pair to a friend this morning.”

Reach Bill Lynch at,

304-348-5195 or follow

@lostHwys on Twitter.

He’s also on Instagram at and read his blog at


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