"Goodbye, 7555 Mission Street: My Favorite Habitat Site In The U.S." - A Greater L.A./Greater San Fran Story

Guest Blog by Patrick Diaz

On February 11, 2011, on the third leg of my second Habitat cross-country trip by train, as I finished my first day at my seventh Habitat site around the country, 7555 Mission Street in Daly City, CA, I made the big decision to try to help build 100 Habitat homes. Two years later, I returned to volunteer for four final days at what will always be my favorite Habitat site in the country.

The Daly City site, developed by Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco, is the largest site I have ever worked on, comprised of two four story pods containing 36 family units. The two pods form an L shape, with the pod that would be the vertical segment of the L running parallel to the street. In the space framed by the pods and the sidewalk is an elegant courtyard layered with a rolling sweep of grass and dotted by circular benches.

In the course of this article it is impossible to fully encompass the span of my own personal but brief involvement in this project, let alone the two year span of the project itself. I first arrived as the project was ramping up for its first official build day, I returned briefly a few months later as they were commencing work on the smaller pod, and, more than a year later, I returned once more as the project was drawing to a close with mainly interior finish work to be done.

I was only at my seventh Habitat site when I first volunteered there, and when I returned early this year, I had reached 59. In fact, I hadn't planned out my Habitat itinerary when I first arrived in San Francisco, so it was a joy to discover that it was just a few minutes' drive from my relatives' home, and even more so to see how epic it was.

The end of the Daly City project closes a narrative arc within my own personal journey. It runs alongside the closure of another recent narrative arc when I unexpectedly ran into a volunteer in Oakland with whom I worked at my first ever Habitat site, in New Orleans, back in March 2010.

Between my first and last visits to 7555 Mission Street, I've accumulated so much experience as a Habitat volunteer, I've met so many wonderful people across the country and have been honored to hear their personal stories, and I've grown considerable roots in the city of Los Angeles, which I now proudly and happily call my home. I've volunteered for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles (HFH GLA), my favorite affiliate, for a full year. I've been blessed with opportunities to create artwork for them, such as the Trusty Rusty Award, the Power Women, Power Tools Cube, and the HFH GLA badge, which I've given to many amazing volunteers and staff members across the country. It is an endless source of joy to keep making Los Angeles a more beautiful place by volunteering with HFH GLA on a regular basis.

And, in another one of those striking coincidences I've had during my travels, I got to meet Craig Russell, the Chief Development and Delivery Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, at a HFG GLA Board Member build, the very person I wish to work for in my pursuit to become a Disney Imagineer. Both my personal Habitat journey and my lifelong dream to become a Disney Imagineer started off as two completely separate trajectories, and it was startling to discover that both paths intersected precisely at HFH GLA, as Mr. Russell just happened to be the affiliate's (now past) chairman. This is one of those intersections of fate you simply cannot make up.

Being a Habitat volunteer has changed my life so much, and I only wish I can help change the world through Habitat as much as Habitat has changed me.

I think the best way to close this article is to describe a few vivid details from each of the three times I visited the 7555 Mission project. There are simply too many to fit into one article. There were simply too many things that happened in the course of a single day. But maybe the one important thing that happened there for me was that, two years ago, at 7555 Mission Street, I was inspired, while only at seven sites in total, to make it a goal to volunteer at 100 Habitat sites around the world.


My First Visit
The concrete podium for the garage, which would house the construction offices and tool and supply sheds, was finished, and work was commencing on the larger pod as the first official day of building was approaching. The vast concrete surface of the podium, which served as the pod's foundation slab, was broken with the orderly arrangement of protruding anchor bolts, topped with square orange and yellow caps, on which the walls would sit. Covering the entire span of the slab were piles of tacked together top and bottom plates, wall studs, headers, and other components that make up wall frames. To the untrained eye it was a complete mess of lumber.

Erin Colton, one of the site's two supervisors, singlehandedly took on the heroic endeavor of marking every single stack of plates with key notations of where the various kinds of studs--king, jack, trimmer, etc.,--were to be nailed, and laying out all the lumber in formations that would become walls, which soon would create rooms, which later would create family units. A single clear path implied a future main hallway that was to run through the midpoint of the floor. The arrangement of lumber made sense if you were privy to the floor plans.

In sun and even in torrential rain, Erin worked steadily to finish marking the plates and laying out the entire course of the first floor, so it would be ready for the first build day when 80+ volunteers, supervised by the AmeriCorps crew, were to build and raise walls for the entire day.

It was a stark contrast between seeing a single person preparing an entire floor, and then, days later, seeing that entire floor filled with throngs of excited volunteers and staff, broken into groups, framing and raising walls. A pattern and rhythm gradually emerged: with top and bottom plates apart--with the bottom plate closest to the anchor bolts--builders place the studs between them at the markings Erin made and nail them in, making sure the studs were flush with the edges of the plates. The crew would move to the top plate side, and, under the supervision of the AmeriCorps crew leader, raise the wall up, lift it over the anchor bolts, and carefully slide it into place. While the crew held the wall up, the AmeriCorps leader thoroughly checked to see that it was properly in place. Then he braced the wall with angled 2X4s secured at the other end to the floor.

On that sunny day, in just a few hours, rooms and family units took shape, and finally the main hallway.

My Second Visit - October 2011

The first pod now had all four floors up, and framing was completed on the first floor of the smaller pod; i.e., the horizontal segment of the L shape that both pods formed. The larger pod was encased in scaffolding. Groups were now working on both pods. On one of the days when there were a large number of volunteers, I was surprised to see Steve Eales, a site supervisor from Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley, leading a group to roll and nail I-joists for the second floor of the smaller pod. From the vantage point of the larger pod, the volunteers working across looked like ants.

Exterior drywalling was one of the seemingly infinite number of daily tasks that had to be done. In order to bring it to a floor, a Grad-All with extendable arm would slot its two pronged claw into a pallet of yellowboard--exterior 4X8 drywall which had a yellow covering embedded with fiberglass strands--and extend its arm into an upper balcony recess, from which volunteers would reach out across the scaffolding, pull a sheet out one at a time, and bring it into one of the rooms, where they were carefully piled, standing on edge.

I was finally assigned to be a crew leader at this site. I was to lead a group of teenage volunteers from a church group in nailing yellow board across the second floor. Aside from nailing full boards in staggered rows, in order to fit the contours of the complex, yellowboard had to be cut to fit the various angles of the walls of the facade, particularly the tricky angles around the balcony recesses.

The process of safely moving the boards to the outside was a monumental task in itself. A pair of volunteers had to carefully navigate the board through the hallway and the gaps of the wall framing to the wide balcony opening that was closest to where we were working, and my work area was a distance from the pile of yellowboard. We had to carry the board through the opening and onto the scaffolding, which was a foot above the floor level, across the bouncy planking, turn a tricky corner to the facing that needed coverage, and fit the board atop the row of yellowboard below it. While volunteers held the board up in place, I checked to make sure it fit snugly against the other boards, and tacked a few nails to secure it, so that nailing the board could commence, making sure we were nailing it into the wall studs.

That assignment was the most memorable for me, as I had to lead independently and ensure the safety of the volunteers.

My Final Visit - February 2013

More than a year passed before I finally returned to 7555 Mission Street. Both floors were up, and, from a distance, one could see the gleaming surfaces of solar panels that covered the roofs. The lot between the two pods was now a courtyard laid out with sod and mulch, and the rolling stretch of green stood out beautifully against the brown and yellow colors of the fiberboard siding.

Inside, the rooms were now fully formed, independent units branching from a hallway that stretched the full length of the pod. The walls were vividly textured, the light brown of the kitchen cabinetry created a radiant island of space in each unit, against the off white walls that glowed with the generous flow of sunlight pouring in from the balcony and windows. From any of the windows of the smaller pod you saw the courtyard and the massive pod across.

Where the vertical and horizontal segments of the L intersected was a connection of outdoor steel corridors linking both pods that also housed an elevator bank and three flights of staircases; that area was also a hidden courtyard adjacent to the grassy courtyard visible from the outside. When I saw those graphically iconic staircases, I couldn't help but think of West Side Story for some reason.

There were no more Herculean tasks this time around. For my final four days, I painted doors on the second floor of the larger pod; it felt like this seemingly easy task took much longer to complete than throwing up long stretches of yellowboard all day on shaky scaffolding.

I always felt like a kid in a candy store whenever I volunteered at 7555 Mission Street because there was so much to do, but the candy was quickly running out.

The place was considerably quieter. There were no massive groups of volunteers there during my last days. It was fine to just sit on one of the beautifully made circular benches in the outer courtyard on a sunny day and just stare at these lovingly made structures. The interiors glowed and sparkled like the grass outside.

Each day I attended the early morning staff meeting where Dawn Adams, the other site supervisor, gave the daily brief in which she assigned tasks to the AmeriCorps crew. It was a new crew now, which wasn't present at the beginning of the build, except for Kimberly Kung, who I met when she was just a new volunteer like me.

There was a new message that Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco had composed that stated their particular expression of the Habitat mission. Each staff member had to memorize that one minute message. On a board at the start of the week, Dawn wrote out the message in its entirety, then would erase a section for the next day so that when the whole crew had to recite it again, they had to fill in the blank from memory.

The next day, another section was erased; another section the day after that. My time there was drawing to a close. My time there was also being erased. I wished that I had volunteered there more; I regretted that I let more than a year pass. But just as the message was being internalized into each member's memory as the message disappeared from the board, my experiences of the site, as time was disappearing, were similarly being internalized into posterity, into memory.

It was an honor to serve Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco and to help build 7555 Mission Street in Daly City.

I want to close by sharing the message that AmeriCorps Greater San Francisco learned to memorize during my final days there, to those reading this blog:

"The volunteers, donors, and homeowners who join us at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco share a belief: hard work and success go hand in hand. Every day, we do what Habitat does best around the globe, but we do it right here in a very Bay Area way, by coming up with inventive solutions to our area's expensive real estate challenges. Because when we invest in our neighbor's quest to become a homeowner, it benefits the whole community."

Thanks to Dawn Adams, Erin Colton, Joe Mattox, Ryan Trainor, Kay MacDonald, James Folta, Kimberly Kung, Bettina Sferrino, and many of the other wonderful people at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco.

Related Posts:
Three Years and 57 Habitat Homes after New Orleans, an Unexpected Reunion in Oakland
A Habitat Trip to Denver, CO in 11 Shots
Patrick Diaz Builds to Remember

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