Three Years and 57 Habitat Homes after New Orleans, an Unexpected Reunion in Oakland

Habitat GLA and East Bay/Silicon Valley Guest Blog by Patrick Diaz

On January 3, 2013, I volunteered at my 58th Habitat site around the U.S., the Brookfield Court development in Oakland by Habitat for Humanity EastBay/Silicon Valley. It was here that I had an unexpected reunion with a volunteer with whom I worked at my very first Habitat site three years ago, in New Orleans, LA, in March 2010. That was the beginning of my Habitat story.

My first Habitat site was at 2315 Louisa Street, northeast of the French Quarter; my first Habitat day was March 3, 2010. I took a cab to get to the site from the Olivier Hotel on Toulouse Street, where I was staying, and when I asked the cabbie what the area was like, he replied, "I don't know. Do you have a gun?"

I will never forget my first ever Habitat assignment, wrapping the entire house with Tyvek housewrap. I had no homebuilding experience whatsoever. Already adrift on my first day amongst 40 or so volunteers, I randomly ended with the housewrap crew when Jennifer, the AmeriCorps member, originally from Orlando, asked if I can help out. The crew was a group of students and their teacher, Diane, which was part of a larger group from the University of Duquesne in Pennsylvania. They'd gone down to New Orleans to volunteer with Habitat for that week.

I climbed up one of the ladders to nail the housewrap with orange cap nails with Diane, along the top half of the roll of Tyvek, which spanned the full height of the house, which sat upon a section of concrete blocks. Roughly three feet high, this section raised the house to a proper height to protect it from floods. As Diane and I stood on ladders and had to lean over the top plate to hammer nails, slightly more successfully than not, a volunteer stood at the base of each ladder to keep it stable. At ground level, two volunteers nailed in the bottom and middle sections while others held the roll of Tyvek vertical.

It was cold, wet, and windy. I wore construction boots that were too large, the shoelaces kept unknotting, and I was up on a ladder for the entire time. This was my first time ever in New Orleans, my first time traveling on my own. I was worried about getting injured and messing up. Nevertheless, despite the unfavorable and haphazard circumstances, we as a crew managed to refine a system of nailing a section of housewrap, unrolling another length of it, moving the ladders alongside, then nailing on the next section, until we developed a sturdy, assured rhythm. Diane had some homebuilding experience working on her own house, and was confident wielding a hammer in a very precarious position, being on a ladder in frigid New Orleans March weather. Considering that the rest of us didn't, it was all the more admirable that, in quick time, we improvised a smooth coordinated system for such an epic task. Even when we got to the side of the house where the fence gave only two or so feet of clearance for the ground crew, we moved with a well earned assurance from the previous hours' struggles to develop our stride.

That is the first story of the first day of the first site of my Habitat story. There are so many details about New Orleans that glowed so vividly to new eyes, too many for one article: filigreed cast-iron railings of the French Quarter, jambalaya with rabbit meat from Coop's on Decatur Street, the splattering of powdered sugar on the pavement around Cafe Du Monde from the popular beignets that it sold, and how the warm orbs of the cafe glowed in the blue early morning. Beignets and chicory coffee are a great way to prepare for a Habitat build day.

Another story in New Orleans, though not at all monumental until now, is the brief time I worked there with a volunteer named Steve. It is a detail, not even a story, that would have remained adrift in a sea of memory, among countless other inconsequential details I've accumulated in my travels, until at some point it would have faded with time and with the inexorable amassing of recent details that push the older ones out.

Things, however, have a way of coming full circle, and it was when I volunteered at Brookfield Court in Oakland, very far from New Orleans, that life asserted that cliché with pleasant whimsy yet cosmic heft.

What I remember of Steve in New Orleans was his black winter beanie, the manner in which his glasses were situated almost to the tip of his nose, and the friendly, soft spoken, high register sound of his voice. I recall that he said he was from Oakland, and that his profession was in education. When I unexpectedly reunited with him in Oakland, I mistakenly thought he had been a professor, but he said he had been a high school counselor.

One vivid detail I recall is that he taught me how to use a chopsaw. The chopsaw was on the ground in the backyard, and I was helping him cut pieces of old 2X4s. I was cutting one piece when suddenly the chopsaw made a freakish noise that shocked me; I had cut into a piece that had a nail embedded. Something flew out and I didn't have protective eyewear.

I remember later telling Steve that I wanted to help out with sheathing the roof with plywood, which was supervised by a traveling senior volunteer named John from Idaho, and how, on my last day there, he was happy and supportive to see that I got the chance.

Steve was among a large group of volunteers there in New Orleans, a detail among details which have piled up in memory, flotsam-like, over the three years I've been traveling volunteering for Habitat. I hadn't even planned on volunteering at Brookfield Court when I visited the Bay Area--I'd made a point to volunteer with a good friend, Site Supervisor Steve Eales, up at Bay Point during my time there. In fact, I signed up at Brookfield Court only to meet with a friend who I first met at a Habitat site in October 2011, in Hayward, although I was only able to meet with her after work. So, before one reunion took place I had another, more epic one.

Fifty-seven sites after my first, I run into Steve again, and he remembered who I was. He has been a regular volunteer for Habitat East Bay/Silicon Valley. We shared stories about our time in New Orleans, to the amusement and surprise of the staff and volunteers, and I showed him photos on my iPad of New Orleans and other cities where I volunteered. I had only ONE photo of him, helping build the front steps, but his back was to the camera. I found out his last name: Ghidinelli. And I had the honor to take his picture holding the Hello Habitat GLA sign I carry with me whenever I travel. A very precious part of my Habitat traveling is getting individuals and groups to pose for a photo holding this sign greeting Habitat GLA; Habitat GLA is my favorite affiliate.

I also got to hear his Habitat story, and, after sharing my own at length in this article, I want to share his, in his own words. Thank you, Steve Ghidinelli, for telling me, and others, your Habitat Story. What a great way to mark three years of volunteering for Habitat for Humanity across the country.

Habitat Stories: Steve Ghidinelli

I am originally from Santa Cruz California and enjoyed growing up in what was then a sleepy little beach town. I enjoyed sports and watched my father go through various home remodels, which I think became an inspiration for my later involvement in Habitat.

Four years ago, I retired from a career in public education, 15 years as a teacher in alternative education and 15 years as a high school counselor. As a retiree, I still tutor young adults who are trying to acquire their GED diploma.

When I retired, I knew I would need to get involved in some new activities to replace work. I had been involved in a couple of remodels of my own house through the years, so I thought that Habitat would be a suitable volunteer activity helping others, while allowing me to acquire building skills that were new to me.

What is your favorite task?
Anytime I can swing a hammer during rough construction, and also using tools I have never had a need to use, as well as attempting a task that is new to me.

What is your most memorable and most moving Habitat moment? What do you feel has been your best contribution?
Obviously, watching the new homeowners receiving their keys on "moving in" day is pretty special. I also have made global trips to Armenia, Haiti, and El Salvador and participating in a cultural exchange at a level beyond the typical tourist experience is pretty amazing.

What was your experience like volunteering in New Orleans?
New Orleans was special in many ways: comparing Habitat building procedures with California ways, living in the dorm with college kids, experiencing a culture of the US that was unfamiliar to me, and enjoying the city during off-work hours.

Is there anything you remember about our working together in New Orleans?
Like most of my Habitat experiences, I thought that our mix of volunteers was pretty exceptional: college kids with wide-eyed enthusiasm and the experienced veterans passing down skills to the next generation. Eating lunch and trading stories from home is always special both in New Orleans and California. And feeling tired but good at the end of the day knowing that you have hopefully made a positive effort in helping someone less fortunate.

Related Posts:
Patrick Diaz Builds to Remember 
A Habitat Trip to Denver, CO in 11 Shots
Friendship Build

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