A Wallraising in the Sun

Yesterday marked my first exposure to the raw side of Habitat’s mission. The curious partition between my daily work and the common perception of Habitat for Humanity is testament to the stark division of labor, if nothing else. I recall the days leading up to my June start date here at Habitat being full of awkward explanations to people: “I’m working for Habitat, but not swinging a hammer.”

Although I’ve managed to escape the sweat equity of working at Habitat, I definitely donated a few milliliters of perspiration standing in office-attire at yesterday’s sun-soaked ceremony in Weinland Park. Nearly everyone wiped their foreheads to catch tickling beads of saline, even dapper men and high-heeled women. As many noted at the double-wallraising ceremony, the festivities were about the partner families more than anyone else. Everyone’s collaboration is focused on one goal: providing safe, decent, and affordable housing for those in need.

A genuine air of happiness permeated the event; my work with the Affiliate was indirectly validated by the words of the soon-to-be homeowners. I’m not sure if my need for self-approval or my desire for external assurance is greater, but they are both bloating above healthy levels.

After the ceremony, I headed down to Milo-Grogan to conduct a few surveys with Habitat homeowners in the neighborhood. I was feeling lucky to have scored a record four interviews in one afternoon. I’m trying to achieve an appropriate sample size for the survey (how’s 14 out of 42?). My first appointment, for which I was a tad tardy due to a pleasant lunch foray at Cafe del Mondo, held some unpleasant surprises. It’s one of those situations where you don’t really know how to respond. I ask Question 3, a question I have asked many times; a question that generally provides a routine gauntlet of responses. “If you had the choice, would you continue to live in this neighborhood? Yes, or no?” The homeowner responded with an emphatic “no” (nothing shocking yet). I follow-up with the requisite, “Please tell me why you feel this way.” Keep in mind that my personality is somewhat bright and engaging. I’ve insisted that the homeowner be brutally honest and–utilizing light humor and a pervasive grin–have attempted to create some feeling of comfort between us.

The homeowner turns to the front window, gazing out with a stoic face, and says, “My son was killed right in front of the house five years ago.”

My mind immediately flashed to the license plate I parked behind on the street: “DAVE RIP.” I don’t recall what I murmured, I only recall that I wish it was communicated with more compassion. One can hope she gathered that my naive 21-year old psyche was not prepared to receive the tragic news. She continues to tell me that another of her sons was killed in a fire, while the third was shot six times and sent to the hospital with a sure prescription for death. This death-defying son walked in a few moments later, coming home from the part-time job he holds to sustain him through his college years.

The rest of the interview was fairly standard. However, she is reminded daily of the incident simply by looking through a thin pane of glass at the sidewalk outside. In the “additional comments” section, she went on to tell me that many parents in Milo-Grogan are essentially “kids raising kids, no role models or good examples to learn from.” The art of good parenting is not instinctive.

Outside of her home is a stone scrawled to the borders with the names of those who have been killed by gun violence since she moved into her home in the mid-1990s. Undoubtedly, pulling away from “DAVE RIP” was entirely different from pulling up behind it.

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