Journey with a Purpose Building Habitat Homes

Habitat for Humanity helps RVers contribute back to communities through their time, talents

When Linda Walden and her husband decided to become full-time RVers, they knew they would love the freedom, the ability to roam wherever they chose – that wonderful rootless feeling.

What they didn’t anticipate missing was feeling connected to a community, the ability to make a difference through volunteerism.

Today, Walden coordinates a program through Habitat for Humanity International which helps restore that missing connection.

The RV Care-A-Vanner program invites anyone who travels in a recreational vehicle to pull over and help build homes for people in need in communities across the country.

RVers typically sign up to work with a local affiliate on a building site, park in a arranged location and labor for two weeks building, painting and landscaping a residential home.

Volunteers typically bring only a few hand tools and a desire to help.

It’s a growing group, with over 5,000 registered volunteers who helped build some 160 homes across the country last year alone.

RVers keep posted on future builds through newsletters and e-mail updates; many will return to help. It’s not a typical vacation trek, but one that many retired RVers find is worth their time.

What keeps people coming back? We asked Walden, who has joined in on many home construction sites herself.

So how did this program get started?

It started with a couple who actually were RVers and volunteered here in the winter, Jack and Rose Wolters. They came down here (Habitat for Humanity headquarters in Georgia) every winter. She was an assistant to our founder, Millard Fuller.

When they (the couple) would leave in the summer, it was suggested that they go to a local affiliate to help, which they did. Over time, friends told friends. Soon, it had grown into a program they were trying to administer from their home – from five builds a year up to 20, 25 builds a year.  They couldn’t handle it anymore.

Habitat eventually decided it should be an in-house program – that was when it became “Care-A-Vanners.”

It sounds as if the program has grown dramatically.

It has. Care-A-Vanners started with about five homes; last year we did about 160. This year we’ll do a lot more because of the hurricanes.

The Care-A-Vanners over the years have been mostly retirement-age people who have the time and desire to volunteer and have earned the reputation for being very, very, skilled builders with a tremendous work ethic. They’re becoming more and more known within the Habitat world, called upon more to help.

What’s the appeal for RVers?

My husband and I have been full-time RVers for nine years – for the most part, I think it’s the same thing that attracted us. Whether full or part time, you have this ability to go wherever you want. After awhile, after seeing museums and visiting friends gets a little old, people who have been part of a community all their lives miss that, and miss giving back.

Maybe they were part of a church and did local volunteering. This program offers the ability to give back while you’re traveling, combines the spirit with your lifestyle.

It’s usually short-term commitments of two weeks, and people find it fairly easy to fit into their schedules. Plus, you are giving your time and talent – you’re doing something personal, not just writing a check.

For us, Care-A-Vanners was a perfect vehicle to give our travels a purpose. I’ve learned a lot.

How do your volunteers sign up for a particular building project?

We announce the build in our quarterly newsletters; we give a date and a time they can sign up. Usually between six and 10 RVs can be accommodated at a site. If there are more than 15 or 20 people working on one house, you’re tripping over each other.

Not every affiliate has the resources to host Care-A-Vanners. They have to make sure there is some place to park, and that they have enough material, as well as a construction supervisor.

Depending on the ability of the community, they usually go out and ask to have lunches donated while the group is there. Churches might host a dinner, Rotary Clubs might invite them. A lot of the Care-A-Vanners judge a build by how much weight they gain! Believe me, they’re never lacking for food. Sometimes, the churches all want to outdo each other.

What’s required of volunteers?

The affiliates will ask for two weeks, occasionally three – that’s a steady injection of manpower. Usually, its six to seven-hour workdays Monday through Friday, sometimes Saturday. The prospective homeowners provide sweat equity, too.  Sometimes they can only work on weekends. A team leader for each team coordinates things between the affiliates and the team. A local construction supervisor is the boss. The volunteers will come in and do whatever needs to be done – framing a house, painting, dry walling, and trimming.

What if you don’t have any real construction experience?

That’s the thing about Habitat; it strives to be all inclusive. (The organization) is based on Christian principles, but you don’t have to have a particular faith to be a homeowner or volunteer. The same thing with skills. We take volunteers from all skill levels. A local construction supervisor acts as a teacher or safety monitor.

Me, I’ve been doing it for six years, a couple dozen builds. We by no means are prolific. I’ve met people who do 10 builds a year. There are always people on the team who know more and can show you how to do things.

It’s really not rocket science. Many times it’s knowing a few simple premises – and measuring. If a woman says, “I can’t carry a 2 x 4 by myself,” you get two women. They don’t use nail guns. Speed and efficiency is not the paramount thing. It’s the camaraderie, the building of relationships – becoming part of the community, working with the homeowners and learning.

Will Care-A-Vanners travel in packs, try to stick together site-to-site?

Lasting friendships develop as groups work together, park together, eat together and socialize. Sometimes, they’ll get together and say, “Let’s go to this build!” But we only let people sign up for themselves, so we don’t encourage cliques.  Also, people will sometimes work with an affiliate, find that they treat them well and want to come back. We’ve even seen people want to schedule a build for a certain group in order to schedule a reunion (of volunteers).

We also see Care-A-Vanner groups forming out of RV clubs. The Escapees, an RV club headquartered in Texas, has about 85,000 members and a chapter dedicated to doing Habitat work. Holiday Ramblers also have an active group within the Holiday Ramblers Motor Club.

How did the last hurricane season affect your building projects?

The hurricanes have created a lot of additional need; most local affiliates can utilize Care-A-Vanners in a variety of ways. This is the great thing: A lot of affiliates in Florida will schedule builds in November through March – with all the snowbirds, that’s their big building season. But we also find that Care-A-Vanners will definitely travel to be where they are needed. And we have builds all over the country.

The local affiliates are just so thankful to have the RVers there – they all want to do the best so they’re encouraged to come back. One affiliate told us that Care-A-Vanners could advance a building project by three months, if you consider that most local volunteers can only work on the weekends. When you can find a group (like this) that will work 8 to 4 every day of the week, they can accomplish so much more.

If Care-A-Vanners start with a foundation and subflooring, they can have a house up and under a roof with doors and windows in about two weeks – that’s pretty amazing.

  • Share this post:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • Digg

Leave a Reply

— required *

— required *