Twelve students from a Boston university with no direct ties to Meridian are spending their spring break this week helping to build a house for a local family.
Suffolk University students and two advisers traveled from the Northeast to the Deep South as part of an Alternative Spring Break. While here, they are volunteering their time, hoping to make a difference in a part of the country where they have little or no direct connection.
As the week progresses, however, these students have started to get to know the recipients of the home and even plan to start using a few Southern words.
From Monday to Thursday, the group gathered to begin hanging drywall throughout the interior of a Habitat for Humanity home.
Groups of volunteers worked in the hallway, living room, bedrooms and other parts of the property.
Alex MacPhelemy, Sarah Reyna and Chelsea Coe had never done interior construction work prior to their visit to Meridian, but had already started showing someone else how to cut drywall.
“This is definitely a team-oriented project,” Coe said, as she took a break from the manual labor.
The group has worked at the house from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and debriefed afterward to reflect on lessons learned.
Hannah Carlon, one of two student co-leaders for the project, said she began helping plan the trip in September to learn about the community.
“We talk about how we can take what we learn here back with us,” she said.
Lessons learned and qualities developed so far beyond practical experience like handling power tools include compassion, teamwork, selflessness, and learning to improvise.
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Wongly Sine, a native of Haiti who is studying management at Suffolk, said he didn’t know what to expect visiting Meridian, but welcomes the break from the snow waiting for him in Boston.
He also said the experience has helped him build interpersonal skills.
“I learned to do this working together in a group,” he said. “We’ve been getting to know each other. It’s been really fun.”
Suffolk University students have traveled to Meridian for at least a decade as part of the collegiate challenge, a partnership between colleges and universities and Habitat for Humanity affiliates throughout the country.
Other colleges and organizations also send volunteers to the local Habitat chapter.
A group effort
Lauderdale County Habitat for Humanity executive director Monica Bradley said the nonprofit organization must raise money and collect donations for each house built, which translates to $60,000 to $70,000 per house.
“We depend on people and businesses donating to us,” she said. “Our focus is to help people who need decent shelter.”
Ashley Wilder’s family will move into the house when it's done. The mother of three and her husband have never owned a home before and look forward to moving from an apartment.
“I will see my money going into my own house,” she said just before lunch with the volunteers.
Requirements for families qualifying for Habitat for Humanity Houses include willingness to pay for the property, having a financial need, and contributing hundreds of hours of sweat equity toward the house and other Habitat projects.
After the students complete their work Thursday, they plan to relax at Clarkco State Park before returning to Boston.
As for souvenirs from the South, Alex MacPhelemy said she has take at least one word, “y’all.”
“I’m going to bring it back to Massachusetts,” she said. “I love the accents.”