Postcards Home | Almost Heaven … In West Virginia


BEFORE I START, let me be clear that I go on actual vacations.  I work a regular job, I need time-off, and I’ve earned the right to indulge; but this travel story isn’t about one of those vacations.  

This is about the weeks (10 of them to be exact) I’ve spent volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in the scorching heat of Almost Heaven West Virginia (yup, a real place, not just a song lyric).  I recently returned from my latest trip there.  The stopping power of the mystical Appalachian Mountains, and the beauty of the Greenbrier River haven’t ebbed.  Not one bit.

This all began eight years ago.  When my daughter Devon was growing up, I was “that dad.”  I relished the thought of gathering she and her friends to do something fun or adventurous, and really getting to know them.  I’m not sure how my daughter felt about that at the time, but my efforts resulted in enough smiles and laughs that they let me keep my role as “that dad.”  I coached them all in soccer, I saw every single one of them go overboard at least once from a white-water raft, and when they were high school sophomores, I came up with the granddaddy of all “that dad” ideas—to drive down to one of the most remote areas of West Virginia and help build someone a home.

What could go wrong?  The girls had zero building skills.  They thought a two-by-four was actually two inches by four inches.  (They’re not.)

Day One, they had a lot of questions.  Questions like, “What’s that?” (answer = wood), and “What makes a house stand up?” (answer = wood).  These young ladies were fast learners and by mid-morning Day Two, they were truly helping to build a family a home.  By Day Four, they were practically running the place! 

That first year they met a work foreman named Donny Delp who invited us into his home for dinner.  Donny and his wife Roxie were of very limited means, but none-the-less, there they were feeding six starving teens from Manchester.  Donny was a huge fan of Bob Seger and I gave him a CD as a gift.  You would have thought I gave him the keys to a brand-new Mercedes.  They also met a young at heart woman, Patricia Cotton, who worked alongside them through the week and offered heartfelt advice about the lives these young ladies had ahead of them (“You don’t need no man!” was my favorite).   They met a family, the Hambricks, whose home we were building.  Walter and Nadine Hambrick had just welcomed their first child into the world, and were living in an apartment that was barely suitable for living.  The roof leaked, the heat barely worked, and just about everything I saw was broken.  Everything about their living situation was abysmal.  It was dangerous, unhealthy, and barely affordable.  That’s Habitat, Year One.

We went again the following year.  It was just before the start of their junior year when their schedules would soon become unmanageable.  This time, we arrived in Almost Heaven, and they hit the ground running.  They were builders!  And more important, these young ladies learned something about their comfort zones and capacities.  They learned that blood and sweat (and one minor concussion) can really make a difference in people’s lives.  “I don’t know how to do that” was no longer in their vocabulary.  Walter and Nadine had two kids by then and were still living in the home these girls help build.  The reduction in monthly cost allowed Nadine to finish her associate’s degree.  The Hambricks’ kids were growing like weeds, loving their home and neighborhood, and still keeping in touch.  (Habitat is a volunteer week that allows you to keep in touch.)

For me, these trips became spiritual.  I was able to map every drop of sweat and blood, and all of the blisters on top of that directly to allowing a humble, thankful, and deserving family to have their own home.  The work being done mattered in the lives of families, and I saw that it mattered with my very own eyes.  When I go back down, I see it all over again by visiting the families I’ve worked and built with.  I met the kids whose bedroom I sheet-rocked.  I’ve worked alongside the parents as we installed flooring in their living room.  I felt how grateful they were to have the once unthinkable dream of homeownership be put into their own hands.  Without Habitat for Humanity and the volunteers who are willing to learn or teach on the job, these families wouldn’t have the opportunity to own homes. 

Though the girls went off to college, I still managed to make my way down every summer since then (sans 2020’s COVID year).  If you have never seen the morning mist blanketing the valleys of the West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, or you’ve never stood in the middle of the Greenbrier River feeling every cell in your body being cooled off after a hard day's work; you should go just for that.  You won’t meet nicer people than those who live in this area.  This isn’t to say that you won’t find nice people just about everywhere including the fabulous communities of Cape Ann, but there is something so inviting when a stranger will greet you in rural West Virginia.  When they say “hello” there, it almost feels like they are inviting you into their home to share a meal.  Like Donnie Delp did. 

On a normal Habitat trip, I would be introduced to a youth group who came to volunteer.  I would be assigned a group of 15 or so of these zero-experience builders whose only goal on Monday morning was to leave on Friday with all their digits intact.  I’d go through the teaching and confidence building process over the course of the week.  The experience was more personal when I went with my daughter and her friends, of course, but building a bond with these kids and seeing the growth in confidence over the course of the week is incredibly rewarding for me.  Groups I had worked with in the past asked me to coordinate schedules so I could continue work with them.  This year I was the lone volunteer on the job site.  COVID had scared people away, for sure, and after a year of isolation, “real” vacations are understandably priority number one for many; but it’s time to get back to building!

The outcome of Habitat is only achieved through the spirit and hard work of the volunteers who give their time and energy.  When you are as engaged as I am and see the slowdown of outcomes due to the shortage of volunteers, it hurts.  When you know families, whose outlooks have been forever improved because of the Habitat experience, you can’t help but to talk up the experience and encourage others to have the same experience.  If you’ve read this far, I guess that means you too.

My goal in sharing this story is that it will encourage you to “vacation-volunteer” in this manner once you’ve re-acquainted with your family in the outside world.  Not knowing how to build is not an excuse; you’ll learn.  Not knowing how to get started is as easy to overcome as typing in into a browser.  You can also volunteer and build right here on Cape Ann if you want.  There are plenty of hard-working families who just need a little help right here, and who are willing to work with you to fulfill their dream of home ownership.

I’ll close by saying that the most common comment I hear from people when I tell them about my Habitat experience is, “I’ve always wanted to do that”.  OK then, go ahead and “do that!”  Grab a group of kids and go.  Grab a group of adults and go.  Go all by yourself, or maybe even join me on my next journey.  You will not forget it.  You will do things you did not think you could ever be able to do.  And if you’re like me, you’ll be writing about your experience in The Cricket in no time!

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