The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 16, 2013

Care-A-Vanners make habit of helping Habitat

Traveling volunteers building local houses

By Edie Schmierbach

---- — MANKATO — Rob and Ronni Silver have been on the road most of the past 15 years. The native New Yorkers call their motor home "home" as they travel throughout the country helping construct others' dwellings.

The Silvers are among the group of RV Care-A-Vanners volunteers who arrived in Mankato this week to don hard hats, wear heavy gloves and provide eight pairs of helping hands to construct four new residences in west Mankato.

When all the tidy houses with two-car garages are completed next spring, the families for whom they were built will move in. But what do the Care-A-Vanners get back from their two-week experience here?

"Oh, my gosh, you can't put a price tag on it," said Ronni Silver. "It's so satisfying. Your feel warm inside knowing you have helped someone. It's worth it just to see the looks on the faces of the new homeowners."

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, Christian housing ministry dedicated to building affordable homes with and for families in need.

The RV Care-A-Vanners program is coordinated through Habitat headquarters in Americus, Ga. Volunteers who travel in recreational vehicles are matched with local Habitat affiliates in need of volunteer support. Care-A-Van volunteers have been converging at Habitat sites in the Mankato area for about 10 years.

Care-A-Vanners pay their own travel expenses to get to and from the organized Habitat building projects. The city has waived lodging fees for the volunteers while they camp at Land of Memories, and local restaurants and churches have been providing their meals.

Each day on the project at Mound Avenue and Rogers Street begins with devotions before the volunteers pick up their hammers and start on a building, said Julie Schmillen, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of South Central Minnesota.

Construction site supervisor Ben Schmillen oversees the group as they frame, shingle and side each home. He is Julie Schmillen's son.

Ben Schmillen has been in "the trades" for about 15 years. This summer, he is overseer for sites in St. Peter, New Prague and Le Sueur as well as on Rogers Street.

"It's a different pace. You never know what you are going to encounter or who you are going to meet," he said. "It's rewarding working with the the families."

His Mankato crew started at 8 a.m. Wednesday and expected to be on site seven hours that day and are to be in Mankato for two weeks. Homeowners-to-be and an Americorps volunteer also are at work on Rogers Street.

"We have been trying for three groups a year," said Julie Schmillen of the traveling volunteers. They usually arrive in early June, August and late in the fall.

The travelers were there to help with four houses on Rogers Street in 2010 and another four in the same subdivision in 2011.

"In 2012, we built in the MRCI neighborhood," Julie Schmillen said.

Not that many years ago, the 13-unit development near Sibley Park was a vacant grass field, Julie Schmillen said. The city helped with tax subsidies and let the organization name the new subdivision. Work will start this fall or in the spring on the final Habitat Park home.

Indoor work — floors, Sheetrock and cabinets — on the four new homes will begin this winter. The new homeowners will move in during February, March or April.

Families chosen to live in the homes contribute 200 to 400 hours of "sweat equity" as their part of the agreement with Habitat for Humanity. A single parent who is head of a household puts in 200 hours of construction labor on Habitat houses.

"A prerequisite is a willingness to participate," Julie Schmillen said.

Advice to anyone who stops to watch the Habitat Park volunteer: Don't expect to have a conversation with the busy workers.

"Right now, we got to get these trusses up," future homeowner Erin Arnett said at the end of her interview.

Drawing from a pool of more than 6,000 volunteers, this year teams of RV Care-A-Vanners are participating in greater than 175 building projects from Canada to Florida and California to Maine.