A Habitat Trip to Denver, CO in 11 Shots

Guest Blog Post by Patrick Diaz
To briefly introduce myself, I am a native New Yorker who travels the country by train and bus volunteering with Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the United States, with the goal of helping build 100 Habitat homes around the world; so far, I am at my 55th (all in the U.S.), which was a home in Aurora, Colorado.

During my fourth cross country trip volunteering for Habitat which began on August 2011, I finally decided to settle in Los Angeles to continue volunteering for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles (HFH GLA), while hopefully developing my passion into a career with Habitat, and pursuing my dream to become a Disney Imagineer.

I wanted to give back to the community of Aurora after the tragic shooting at the Century 16 Theater during the midnight screening of a highly anticipated film. The Habitat home in Aurora began construction just two days before, on July 18. I volunteered during the final three days of the build.

When I arrived, the house was finished, aside from minor finish work like caulking the windows, installing baseboard, and securing wall fixtures. I was mainly involved in landscaping, which nevertheless was an epic task involving shoveling mulch and gravel, planting flora, and laying down sod. We were a small crew, but we completed it in two days.

An interesting fact about Habitat Metro Denver is that the cabinetry and roof trusses are built and assembled by inmates of the Crowley County Correctional Facility. On my second day, the cabinets were delivered and installed by a separate crew, while we worked on landscaping.

At the end of my second day, I took the bus straight down to the Aurora Town Center, where, on July 20, at the Century 16 Theater, twelve people lost their lives, and 58 people were wounded.

The weather added to the gloomy mood of my bus ride down there. There was much talk of snowfall for the entire day, which never came to fruition. It was an overcast sky, and, never having given much thought to what the weather in Denver would be like in October after a full year of sun and warmth in Los Angeles, I forgot to bring warm layers.

I got off the bus one stop before the bus depot directly across the town center, and walked in the cold across a stretch of dry grassy terrain that led to the Town Center. I could already see the wedge shaped marquee of the Century 16 Theater in the distance, its gaudy bright colors and form becoming the unexpected symbol of tragedy, the wedge an unexpected tombstone. Against the overcast sky, the incongruity of the building's cheery hues, its generic, monolithic commercialism, made the irony all the more striking.

The grassy field on which I wandered swept upwards as I approached, and I walked past small mounds of dirt which were the numerous entryways for prairie dogs. I saw a prairie dog scurry into one of the holes as I moved past.

The looming wedge shaped marquee, the vast emptiness of the field, the insistent motor hiss of traffic around the distant perimeter, and the stinging cold formed the parenthetical framework of my slow walk towards the site of tragedy, while reminding me of the reason why I traveled all the way to Denver.

The end of the field is delineated by a street that leads into the Town Center to the right, and directly across was another hill of tawny colored grass. A neat row of identical suburban houses stood in the distance. It was on that field that a vast memorial was assembled to honor those who perished, but was removed shortly before I went to Denver. All that remains is a single sign by the edge, with a simple, somehow impersonal message of thanks and remembrance. Even the bland typeface of the letters was somehow impersonal, and I can imagine, in stark contrast, how sincerely mournful the memorial must have been in its chaos, its haphazard placement of things, its colors, its messages of love and condolence in messy fervent scrawls, a tidal wave of expression that blanketed the grassy canvas freely and abundantly, unconditional love in all its joyful messiness. All that remained now was a sweep of dying grass under seemingly weighty clouds.

I crossed the street and approached the theater, across asphalt of empty parking space, and my time was marked as I passed by the regular intervals of diagonal white slashes into which cars slot in, now unused and forbidding. Grassy emptiness gave way to flat man-made iron gray concrete emptiness, tidy, clinical, planar geometry replacing the swelling contours of nature.

I saw the theater was closed off all around by a barrier of fencing wrapped with green mesh. I approached the left side of the theater, and there the fence had collapsed in under the push of some particularly insistent gust of wind. Through the mesh I could see a few parked police cars. A light box to the side of the entrance which would have housed a poster of a current showing was empty. I walked alongside the fence, fearful since I was the lone pedestrian there, and wondering if a security vehicle would come by and inquire me about my business.

I walked past the point where the massive wedge of the marquee was before me, and finally walked on to the other end of the theater. I thought about what happened there, but not too deeply. I was standing before a place where something thoroughly horrible happened. The vast emptiness of it all, its steely coldness, as I approached the theater and as I was finally there was like a monument in itself, of space and time, to the loss of precious, dear, and vulnerable life. The place was a deathly vacuum in stark contrast to the Town Center across where all the cars had gathered as if in a huddle, where there was sign of life, not too far from death. I couldn't stand still just to observe for even a few seconds, I just walked and walked until it was done. After a brief stay in the food court of the Town Center, I left.

Why I volunteer for Habitat, and why I've traveled for two years doing Habitat work at my own personal expense is too lengthy to fit into this single article about one Habitat home out of 55. I haven't worked during that time. For now, it's enough to know that I was in the New York area when 9/11 happened, and I knew someone who died at the Twin Towers. It's also enough to know for now that tragedy and sheer incomprehensible loss can serve as the groundwork for developing compassion and the necessary but joyful duty of helping those in need. Like the accumulation of individual memorials--a spray of crosses here, a patch of notes there, a clumping variety of flowers in various stages of their brief lifecycle, blooming and withering--which amass to some cosmic expression of grief and loss, compassion itself, as a cosmic expression of love and loss, can grow piecemeal, haphazardly, and joyfully, house by house, city by city, task by task, family by family.

One may have lost, yet nevertheless have been blessed.

I never thought I'd get to 55 homes so quickly. I think back to my very first day volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, in New Orleans, LA, in March 2010. I was taking the cab to an area east of the French Quarter to the Habitat site, and I asked the driver what the area was like. In a casual way, he replied, "I don't know. Do you have a gun?"

A callow but brief introduction of fear heralded my first ever three days of Habitat work that changed my life. Now, 54 houses after the first, the joy and the compassion in building homes continue to burn tirelessly, persistently, and, now as a regular volunteer for HFH GLA for a full year, thankfully.

A big thanks to Site Supervisor Trevor, AmeriCorps staff member Marc, Volunteer Manager Aimee Runge of Habitat Metro Denver, and my cousin Amy and her husband Eric who provided me a place to stay while I was in Denver.

Related Posts:
Patrick Diaz Builds to Remember 
Meet Americorps Alum, Becky Murray
Lending a Hand Up to All Those in Need is Part of our Mission 

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