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Volunteers on the roll

A traveling RV group sets up camp in Dade City to be part of Habitat for Humanity projects.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003

DADE CITY -- Noreta Ray is retired. She lives in an RV. She could be on a beach or a golf course, in a national park or in Branson, Mo.

But she isn't.

A chilly, early morning on Dade City's east side found Ray and 16 other retirees swinging hammers, toting lumber and scaling rooftops as they scrambled to erect two homes in two weeks at a neighborhood of Habitat for Humanity houses along Tucker Avenue and Canal Street.

Ray, 65, is one of 1,500 to 2,000 retired RVers, dubbed Care-A-Vanners, who crisscross the country in search of Habitat homes to work on.

The volunteers live in their recreational vehicles, park where they can, and when the work is done, they scatter back across the country in search of new projects.

"We just open up the newsletter, look for a project, then call Habitat and tell them we're on our way," Ray said. "It might be in an area we've always wanted to see. It might be an area we were already planning to be in."

For Ray, "Home is where you park."

She and her husband, John, live in the RV and dedicate their time to helping build homes for others.

Care-A-Vanners national coordinator, Marge Kitterman, said she and her husband, Bob, were avid Habitat for Humanity supporters in their hometown of Greensboro, N.C., before they retired.

Habitat for Humanity is an international effort that builds decent, affordable housing for low-income people. The beneficiaries work on their own homes and promise to work on homes for others. They also pay back the cost of the house through no-interest loans. The money then goes back into future projects.

When the couple retired, sold their home and hit the road in an RV, Kitterman said she and her husband found something was missing.

They called Habitat headquarters in Americus, Ga., and signed on to a fledgling program connecting RVers and projects that needed workers.

That was 11 years ago. Now Kitterman, 65, is the chief coordinator, and the program grows each year.

"I know that a lot of people think we're nuts because we drive around in our rolling houses and help build homes, when we don't have houses ourselves."

Care-A-Vanners come from all walks, said Kitterman, who worked in public relations.

At the Dade City site, Ray was an administrative assistant before she retired. Nan Stevens was a project manager for a high tech Boulder, Colo., company. Others on the Dade City project included a retired teacher, a surgeon, a nurse and an engineer.

In east Pasco, the Care-A-Vanners made their first appearance this week, but the local Habitat for Humanity drive has counted on a varied source of volunteer labor, including church groups, civic organizations, and coming next month, a steady flow of college students volunteering to work on houses rather than take a traditional spring break vacation.

It's a tough job, 63-year-old Care-A-Vanner Kathie Heaton said. But the reward is big.

"We get paid. We get paid in here," she said, tapping her heart.

To help

Habitat for Humanity's Care-A-Van program is always looking for new members. Volunteers work on anywhere from one to 10 houses a year. For information about the program and how to sign on, coordinator Marge Kitterman can be reached toll-free in Americus, Ga., at 1-800-HABITAT (1-800-422-4828) or by e-mail at Locally, the East Pasco Habitat for Humanity program can be reached at (352) 567-1444.

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