Volunteering for Habitat for Humanity with the RV Care-A-Vanners

My great aunt and uncle Ruth and Sheldon have been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity (HFH) for decades.  When we were booking our winter travels, hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, so we knew we would need to take a pause on travel planning while this region stabilized and dealt with the aftermath of the storm.  

During that pause, we talked about using our time in Louisiana to volunteer, because we knew the area could use a helping hand.  Matt had volunteered with HFH before, so we applied to volunteer with their affiliate RV Care-A-Vanners and were accepted.  Hooray! 😃 It felt great to take some time to give back to a community of people who could benefit from our help and we were excited to dig in.  

Our first build site, Covington, LA

They are a Christian organization, and the slogan said at the beginning of each build day is “Habitat is not a hand out, it’s a hand up.”  It truly is a great organization that not only involves the owners of HFH built houses in the building process, but also teaches them skills in areas of finance and maintenance.  I also learned a lot of new skills I could take with me wherever we would land later on.  Here is what we worked on during this volunteer opportunity.

Day 1:

Our site was off of 5th Street in nearby Covington, where three houses were being built.  Two houses had already been closed in with roofs, weather proofing, windows and doors. We were working on the third house, which had a foundation and walls but still needed a roof.  Our Care-A-Vanner (CAV) team leader Darrell introduced to the site supervisors Cody, Jeremy and Tucker and the rest of the volunteers, including two more CAV volunteers Ginny and Jim, and two more HFH volunteers Dan and Paul.  

After getting set up with hard hats, gloves and safety glasses, we got to work setting up supports in the house for a catwalk at the same height as the other scaffolding.  On the outside, we set up “wall walkers,” which are a form of scaffolding that is secured to the walls.  Finally, scaffolding was set up in the main entrance to the house.

Once we had everything secured, we started sending up trusses for the roof and setting them in place.  We got about a third of the way through the trusses before we called it a day.  I became more comfortable with using an impact driver to put in screws for the supports and later cut some boards on the miter saw.  I was excited about learning these handy skills!

Halfway done with roof trusses

Day 2:

The next day we set to work helping send up the remaining trusses for the rooftop, and then it was time to start putting sub-fascia across the outside of the trusses to secure them in place. Then we needed to reset our wall walkers and scaffolding to provide a walkway closer to the bottom of the rooftop as a safety precaution.  Moving everything to ensure we are all safe takes time, so we put the first row of OSB (oriented strand board) on top of the trusses and wrapped up our day’s work. 

We got into our harnesses a little prematurely

Day 3: 

After the first row of OSB was set, Matt and I were put into harnesses, which were attached to “yo-yo’s.”  These yo-yo’s have a 25 foot cable inside and the other end is attached to a metal bracket that was screwed into the rafters on the roof.  Now we had a safe way to walk on the roof, and if we were to fall, the yo-yo would stop the cable from unraveling further and prevent us from sustaining a large fall.  Believe it or not, I am afraid of heights, so having the harness made me feel a lot better about walking on the roof. 😬

Now clipped in and ready to go, we starting nailing each row of OSB to the trusses and I got more comfortable with the nail gun.  The noise hurt my ears, so I had to wear ear protection, but otherwise it wasn’t as scary as I had experienced before.  It was quite satisfying to look at our progress at the end of the day and see a roof taking shape. 

It was getting pretty hot up there, so to finish out the day, I used a palm nailer attached to an air hose.  This device was used to nail in brackets that further support the roof truss attachment points on the outer walls of the house.  HFH was celebrating MLK with a 3-day weekend, so we reconvened building on the following Tuesday.

Day 4:

It’s now Tuesday, and we started with cleanup before getting to work on the rooftop again.  It rained over the weekend, so we had a bunch of water in the house that needed to be swept out.  Once this task was done, I worked with our Care-A Vanner team leader Darrell to start putting OSB on the more complicated part of the rooftop in the front of the house.  This involved more nailing and running around the rooftop in a harness.  It took a lot longer to cover a smaller section, because we needed to make sure our trusses were set the right length apart and the two pitches in the roof would come together correctly at their respective peaks.  This was our last build day on this site.

Day 5:

Today we went to a different build site about 10 blocks away on H Street.  This site only had cinder blocks set up and cemented into the ground with rebar, so we were going to be building the floor of the house on top of the blocks.  

First up, we need to put metal flashing on top of the cinder blocks to prevent termites from accessing the wooden sill plate above.  Once those were in place, we started setting up the sill plate on the outside and down the middle of the house’s footprint, which was comprised of heavy 6×6 inch timber posts.  The men did the heavy lifting here, as each timber weighed a couple hundred pounds, but I helped nail them together, end to end.

Once the posts were set in place, the crew secured the posts with straps that were attached to the cinder blocks.  Now we could get to work on placing joists on top of the sill plate, which were made of 2×12 inch boards.  These were a little bit more manageable, so I was introduced to the circular saw, and helped cut boards to the required lengths.  We finished almost 2/3 of the joists before calling it a day.  

Earlier, I brought an ice-box cake to share with the crew.  It was great timing since it would be our last warm day for the foreseeable future.  Why not enjoy the lovely weather while it lasts and share a meal together?  It turned out really well and everyone liked it, so I called it a success. 😋 Yay!  

Day 6:

This day started out 20 degrees cooler after another night of rain, and it was only going to get colder as the day went on. 🥶 We had two choices: go to 5th Street and work inside one of the more finished houses putting up OSB on some of the inner walls, or go to H Street and continue working on the floor of that house.

We started out at 5th Street and were going to work in the house; however, because of COVID being on the rise, we needed to wear a mask inside, and I couldn’t get my safety glasses to stop fogging up. 🤬 After getting frustrated and feeling a bit defeated, I was happy to move to H Street and work outside for the rest of the day.

At H Street, I worked with Matt on cutting boards with the circular saw and sending them over to Cody and Jeremy to finish setting the trusses up.  Around lunchtime, the rest of the crew came over and we worked together to start putting blocking in between the floor joists so they wouldn’t bow over time.  Because Ginny and Jim had cut a bunch of this blocking the day before, we made quick work of this task.

Finally, we started setting tongue and groove panels on top of the trusses, which made up the subfloor of the house.  The bottom side was glued to the trusses with a subfloor adhesive and then nailed to the trusses.  It was my job to finish nailing all of the subfloor once it was put into place.  This may sound easy, but my nail gun kept misfiring into the harder surface, so I was constantly unjamming the gun, pulling nails and having to redo my work. 😫 At the end of the day, we were cold and tired and happy to head home to warm up.

Days 7 & 8:

The temperatures continued to plummet, and with that came school closures, so our Friday build was cancelled. However, we had one last opportunity to finish the floor of the house on H Street and say goodbye to all of the wonderful people we met on the build. 

For our final build with the team on Saturday, Jim and Ginny brought beignets, and Cody brought hot cocoa.  It was still very cold, but with the sun shining it actually didn’t seem that bad compared to Thursday. We had plans to head into New Orleans that afternoon, so in the few hours we spent on site we almost finished the subfloor, but we ran out of material before lunchtime.  With the exchange of some thank you cards and kind words among the crew, we said our goodbyes.

We almost finished the floor!
Our card from the site supervisors. LOL

Working with Habitat for Humanity was such a wonderful experience.  Our team worked so well together, and we not only got along and accomplished a lot in two weeks, but it inspires us to participate in more builds as we continue our journey.  Words cannot express the joy this opportunity brought us, getting to know builders coming together from across the US and local builders sharing their experiences living in the surrounding communities.  The hard work and kindness of the volunteers and employees was tremendous and humbling to witness, and brought us a sense of community on the road. ❤️

Our team from Left to Right: Darrell (CAV team lead), Jeremy (HFH employee), me, Tucker (HFH employee), Matt, Ginny (CAV volunteer), Cody (HFH employee), and Jim (CAV volunteer). All site supervisors wear orange on the build site.

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