Delaware Public Media

Enlighten Me: California students spend spring break lending helping hand in Delaware

Mar 23, 2018

When spring break arrives, college students tend to escape toward warmer climates and to shirk anything that seems like work.

It might be said that some would rather get hammered than swing one.

So it’s fair to ask: Why would a dozen students from California State University at San Marcos, just a half-hour drive north of San Diego, decide to spend a week in northern Delaware, rehabbing homes for Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County, especially as the area staggered through its fourth nor’easter in less than a month?

OK, so they couldn’t have predicted the weather when they were making their plans, but one member of the team, 22-year-old senior Savannah Ballard, did admit that “all of my friends are either in Mexico or Las Vegas.”

For Jocelyn Molano, a 22-year-old senior who helped organize the trip, the reasoning was pretty straightforward. “For me, it’s a perfect mix between being a tourist and helping out the community,” she said Tuesday before the group started on its first project, insulating a two-story Habitat-owned duplex in the 3000 block of West Street in Wilmington.

But before they could begin, a majority of the group had the excitement of a first-time experience. Snow had started falling, so the students rushed outside, some feeling the flakes on the faces while others recorded the moment on their phones.

Some Cal State students experienced their first snowfall during their spring break trip to Delaware
Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

Then it was back indoors, where the students put on face masks and white haz-mat suits to get ready to work. It looked a bit like a scene from “Ghostbusters” as Miguel Little, the Habitat site superintendent, delivered instructions and provided demonstrations on how to install the two types of insulation being used – fiberglass batts for the exterior walls and foam board for interior walls.

“I’m training practically every day, whenever we get a volunteer group,” says Little, who has been with Habitat for not quite three years. “Training is part of our mission. We want to teach them, so they can help in their communities.”

Habitat welcomes student volunteers and other groups from out of town, says Kevin Smith, executive director for the New Castle County program. The agency typically hosts eight to 10 teams of out-of-towners a year, with the CalState students having the distinction of traveling the greatest distance to reach Delaware this year, he says.

Molano, who spent her spring break last year working with fellow students on a Habitat project in Tacoma, Washington, said the trip was organized through a university group called Associated Students Inc. that is funded by an activity fee that students pay along with their tuition. Students have to apply to participate and go through an interview process before selections are made.

Students paid $350 each to make the trip, and the university group is covering some of the costs, including their meals while in Delaware.

Kimberly Pierce, assistant director of programming for Associated Students Inc., is one of two staff members overseeing the students. She is on her seventh Habitat trip with a student group, and it’s a working vacation for her in two ways. Not only does she have a supervisory role, but she’s also accustomed to picking up the tools and pitching in. “We do whatever they’re doing. We put up a roof and siding in Louisiana, and last year we shingled a roof. We’ve done everything,” she says.

And, she added, with a nod to the cold outside, “we told them to layer … and to have an open mind.”

In choosing destinations, Molano and Pierce explain, Associated Students looks for places that students aren’t likely to have visited before, giving priority to areas with a climate that differs from southern California and with multiple places worth seeing.

The group flew into Philadelphia last Friday. Before getting to work on Tuesday, they spent time visiting historic sites in Philadelphia and checking out national landmarks in Washington, D.C. Depending on their work schedule and the weather, they hoped to see a little more of Delaware this week before flying home.

The college students working with Habitat for Humanity spent time this week installing insulation in this two-story rowhouse at 3004 West St. in Wilmington.
Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

The work schedule would have to be flexible, given the weather conditions, Smith said. If the weather kept the group inside, there was work on the house on West Street and another property in Middletown. If the snow hadn’t come, they might have been able to put in some time at Hope Run, four new townhouses under construction at 10th and Church streets on Wilmington’s East Side. Thanks to another volunteer group, framing and sheathing were completed there last week, but trusses still had to be moved into place before the roof could be installed.

Habitat, Smith says, relies heavily on volunteers, both local and from out of town. It especially encourages participation by the young – both high school and college students – because, Smith says, “it’s very important for us as a feeder pattern. We go from youth, to college age, to young adult and up the ranks. We’ve even got volunteers in their 80s. It’s important for us to keep renewing the generations.”

In a typical year, Smith says, Habitat builds or rehabilitates 12 to 15 homes in New Castle County and also makes substantial repairs for five to eight homeowners who have low incomes. Most of those homes are within Wilmington’s city limits, but it is also working on properties in Middletown and in the Route 9 corridor, between Wilmington and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Habitat has recently begun to broaden its services, getting into exterior beautification, painting facades and clearing vacant lots. Most of these non-construction projects culminate with a neighborhood cleanup effort to bring residents together, he says.

Habitat currently has an inventory of 40 to 60 homes that it needs to get into habitable condition – a process that will probably take three to four years – before it can do extensive work in conjunction with the new Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank. The land bank, created two years ago, has only recently begun operating. Its role will be to assemble packages of vacant lots and rundown properties and to hold them until individual buyers or nonprofits like Habitat are ready to step in and make them habitable again.

Smith welcomes the opportunity to partner with the land bank. “Holding onto vacant properties is expensive,” he says.

Habitat has already engaged in some collaboration with the land bank, which last year acquired two parcels with rundown homes in the middle of a block on East 22nd Street where Habitat already owned a series of vacant lots. The land bank had the structures demolished, clearing the way for Habitat to begin building townhouses on the block later this year.

Back on West Street, the Californians were making steady progress, carefully fitting fiberglass batts and foam strips between the studs and efficiently stapling the batts into place.

Little, the site superintendent, was pleased with the quick start. “What I like about this job,” he says, “is that they want to volunteer. That means I don’t have to fuss about getting them to work.”

Volunteer Parizod Sharafutdinova, a 27-year-old senior, who had never done construction work before, was excited about having a chance to give back, even if it was in a community she had never seen before. “It’s amazing how Habitat [through sweat equity] helps people get to own their own house,” she says. “That’s pretty cool.”

And Sharafutdinova, who spent more than two years in the Navy in Newport, Rhode Island, between high school and college, was also relishing the prospect of reliving one of little pleasures from her prior winter stay on the East Coast.

“It’s kind of nice to see snow again. If it snows enough,” she says, “maybe I’ll get to make a snow angel.”