By SHEA STASKOWSKI
A group of students and alumni from Rockford College in Illinois have given up a spring break trip to the beach and opted instead for manual labor.
Each year, the Starkville Habitat for Humanity hosts the Collegiate Challenge where colleges, and universities from other states spend a week building a Habitat home.
The college students help build the Apostles’ House, which received it’s name because it is sponsored by the churches in Starkville, who supply not only the building supplies, but also the meals and daily devotionals for the students while they are here.
“The group from Rockford is one of our best groups, so we make sure we kick off the Collegiate Challenge during their spring break each year,” Habitat Director Freddie Rasberry said.
Rockford has been coming to Starkville for the last 16 years. They arrived Sunday, March 6, began work March 7 and will wrap up today to head back to Illinois.
“I think it’s the people here that keep us coming back,” said Tom Cunningham, a Rockford alumnus who has participated all 16 years. “It’s the community and the churches that take us in. They make us feel like this is where we should be. There was no question we would return after the first year.”
Cunningham admitted that Starkville was one of their first choices because of the distance from Illinois and the promise of spring break-like weather. This year, however, the group has been dealing with cold temperatures, cloudy skies and pouring rain, but that hasn’t affected the group’s morale, they said.
“The best thing about this is that they are here to help others,” said Robin Kenney, Rockford Alternative Spring Break coordinator. “They could be on a beach, but they are here in the pouring rain building a house, and they enjoy it. They don’t even want to stop working at night to go eat dinner.”
Traditionally, the Collegiate Challenge is just one house, but this year, Habitat had enough funds to do the forty-fifth and forty-sxith homes at the same time. Though twice the building is a challenge, the group is thrilled to be able to provide twice the housing for people in need.
“I think that everyone here feels like if they have the ability to help someone, they should,” Cunningham said. “This experience fills that void in the soul.”
By the end of day three, the Rockford group of 33 volunteers had interior and exterior walls of both homes assembled are are confident they will reach their roofing goal by the end of today. They work 10 hours a day for five days.
“Rockford College’s challenge has always been to have shingles on the roof by the time tools are packed on Friday. Weather depending, Rockford has met this challenge most year,” Kenney said. “Watching the coordination of walls being raised — one after another —is a feeling that is not easy to describe.”
For the newcomers, the experience can be a little overwhelming, especially as Rockford is the first group and starts their challenge with a slab of concrete and a pile of building supplies awaiting them when they arrive, but it is equally as rewarding.
“I had heard a lot about [the Collegiate Challenge] from the students at Rockford, and they kept going on and on about how much fun it was and how they got to help a family,” newcomer Joanna Bares said of her desire to be a part of the experience this year. “It’s been pretty amazing. I wasn’t even sure if I could do any of it, but I’ve learned that I can.”
“It’s amazing because these homes are for people who really need it, and we’re not getting money to do this, we’re doing it because we want to help,” fellow newcomer Amanda Psareas added. “I really like new adventures, so I didn’t want to do the typical spring break, so this is a lot of fun.”
And what keeps the volunteers coming is the experience they have both on the job and with their fellow volunteers.
“It’s the atmosphere,” said Christopher Durham, fifth-time volunteer, of what keeps him coming back to Starkville. “You start with the newbies, and you show them the way — it’s like a big family.”
“It’s fun to get to know the people on the trip, and not only that, we’re building homes for people who need them,” fellow repeat volunteer David Gray said. “It’s one of those things that you’re doing something for someone else, and it feels good.”
Three more colleges, community volunteers and the Starkville Academy Pilot Club will all volunteer roughly 2,000 hours total to complete the two Apostles’ Houses by mid-summer.
To find out more about volunteering, contact Starkville Habitat for Humanity at 324-7008.