By: Sam Andrews
Photography by: Marlayna Camara
At the Cars for Homes vehicle donation center, much of our time is spent in the office processing car donations that help our non-profit partners fulfill their missions. However, we do sometimes get the chance to work in the field with the charities we represent. So it was with great anticipation that several staff members finally ventured out on March 18th to help build a Habitat for Humanity home in Newport, RI, courtesy of Rhode Island East Bay Habitat for Humanity. We’re used to handling the “cars” part of Cars for Homes, but that day we experienced the home construction part of the program, which has been Habitat’s signature effort for decades.
Newport is a quaint, coastal community located in Southern Rhode Island. For natives of the Ocean State it has made for fun summer day trips to various beaches, surf coves, shopping wharfs and fine restaurants in the area. It’s a popular tourist destination for travelers from all around the world. It also features the infamous Bellevue Avenue row of mega-mansions built towards the end of the Industrial Revolution as vacation homes. One such mansion, Rosecliff, was used for filming the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford. So while most of the staff knew Newport quite well, we were completely unfamiliar with the concept of home construction in this area.
The site is located off Thames Street, near Bowen’s Wharf in downtown Newport, which is rife with tourist traffic in the summer season. However the house itself is neatly tucked besides weathered-shingle townhouses on a quiet one-way street away from all the commotion.
When we first arrived, the most noticeable aspect of the whole scene was the construction. There was a lot of progress on the exterior, but inside there was much work to do with all the exposed plywood walls and wood framing.
If you’ve never been inside a home under construction, you’ll find the first time quite interesting. One gets a strange sensation of being at the center of a storm, walking in unfinished rooms that will someday have children laughing, playing, studying and sleeping, parents quietly reading the newspaper, families eating dinner together, and people living and breathing and going about their individual, innocent lives as usual. But to experience that before it becomes inhabited is like the opposite of visiting a haunted house of spirits past – it is like being inside a crystal ball, where you can feel the weight of an incoming presence before the events actually happen. This only compounded the importance of our physical presence in the present to briefly help make this dream come true.
For our actual duties, we were assigned with adding concrete-fiberglass composite siding strips to the right second story exterior side. This meant experiencing another sensation that was also new to everyone: walking along scaffolding that was swaying in the cold wind 30 feet above the ground. Although the walkway was secured to the roof, we accessed it by climbing through a window on the second story. Once we were steady, a friendly worker named Jim would cut the siding inside and a staff member would hand the pieces to us through the window. Once the placement was measured correctly, we would line up the strips and nail them to the side. The results were instantly satisfying. Each additional piece would bring us closer to the roof. Eventually, we finished the whole side. The concrete-fiberglass pieces themselves were pleasantly colored in neutral Pottery Barn-esque shades of tan, forest green, and burgundy. At first some of us thought this would be the finished color-scheme, a “hip” patch-work look. But it was later revealed the siding would be painted over for a final finishing touch.
As the day ended, we took a moment to look out from the scaffolding and see all the other rooftops. It occurred to me there that this house was about to become a part of something, like all the other houses, a welcome addition to this seaside community. The difference is that we can say we helped build it, if only for a day. And for many months, many other people helped build it too, in the name of Habitat for Humanity. We left feeling happy, we helped a little, and we learned something. The seed has been planted for us to feel like we wanted to come back and help again someday.