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Tooling around

Instead of relaxing in retirement, the RV Care-A-Vanners are traveling the nation, building houses for Habitat for Humanity.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

VERO BEACH -- Joanne Sainsbury remembers her first encounter with a 16-penny nail. She needed 32 whacks to drive it into a 2 by 4. Not three dozen or so. Not a whole bunch. But exactly 32 whacks.

She counted each swing.

Like most of the retirees putting together this shell of a house, Sainsbury knew next to nothing about construction until a few years ago.

Now she and her comrades are shock troops for an international building movement.

They roam from town to town, assembling houses for Habitat for Humanity International. They bunk in their recreational vehicles, which range from pickups with travel tops to three-room land yachts. In return, they find adventure, satisfaction and kinship -- precious commodities in the postworkday world.

An AARP survey last year showed that retirement can sap people's sense of worth, along with social networks that took decades to develop. This Habitat program -- called RV Care-A-Vanners -- fills that void with tape measures, nails and a common purpose.

"I had to leave my blood at the house. Habitat takes my blood," joked Canadian Denise Smith, exhibiting a blistered hand and a swollen finger that had stopped an errant hammer.

Smith, her husband, Ron, and seven other RV couples descended last month on a quiet cul-de-sac off U.S. 1, bringing along their toolbelts, paint-spattered jeans and about 100 years of collective building experience.

Indian River Habitat, being an aggressive affiliate, had cleared lots for 28 houses, eight of them already rising from the sand. Churches, businesses and nearby gated communities had provided materials and hundreds of volunteers.

But the locals tend to work a day here and a day there. Care-A-Vanners will put in two weeks of solid effort.

This group swarmed over one house like pioneers at a barn-raising, moving in quick concert, just as they've done dozens of times before.

"Oh, man, they give us an injection of manpower equivalent to a half a house," said Andrew Bowler, the local Habitat director. "If houses are falling behind schedule, we get caught up. They have had three, five, eight years with Habitat for Humanity and are getting semiskilled and skilled.

"With the church people, 90 percent are on their first builds. The Care-A-Vanners do roofs, or do shingles, do anything. With minimal instruction, they are up and running."

Gail Gridley's right bicep testifies to seven years of hammering. It plays Arnold Schwarzenegger to her left bicep's Danny DeVito. She and her husband, Lloyd, sold their Colorado home and travel full time in their 39-foot Safari.

In a typical year, the Gridleys do eight Habitat builds. That's 16 weeks of work and a couple of weeks of traveling to and from. The rest of the year, they visit kids and see the country.

"We wanted to do something," Gail said. ". . . to help less fortunate people," said Lloyd, finishing her sentence.

Until cultural sensitivity intervened, the Care-A-Vanners called themselves the RV Gypsies. They began in 1988 with 20 people and five builds. Today, about 1,500 Care-A-Vanners will help with more than 100 builds. They'll hit southern and southwestern states in the winter, northern states in the summer, with a one-month trip to New Zealand in May.

Stops this year include Brooksville in March and Dade City in February and November.

Local affiliates arrange a parking spot and tell them how many Care-A-Vanners they can accommodate. Habitat headquarters in Americus, Ga., sends out a build schedule and, on a prearranged day, Care-A-Vanners clog the phone lines trying to sign up.

Veteran Care-A-Vanners usually can count on recognizing friends from previous builds, but the first-come, first-served system assures a steady influx of new faces.

Ontario residents Jean and Owen Jones and Michigan residents Al and Phyllis Palmer and Walt and Cheryl Leesch have e-mailed each other since meeting two years ago at a Fort Myers build.

"We said, "Let's try to get into Vero Beach,' " Cheryl Leesch said. So they all called Americus as soon as sign-up day arrived. Known for its smooth operation, winter sun and church groups that bring in KFC or pasta lunches, Vero Beach is a popular destination.

"I thought there was no chance we were all going to make it, but we did," Leesch said.

Like others in their late 50s, 60s and 70s, the builders at the Vero Beach site are not without their aches and pains.

Though roofing is Cheryl Leesch's passion, a back brace keeps her on paint detail.

"Walt wouldn't bring my tool belt, so I wouldn't try anything," she said.

Phyllis Palmer, a writer, also spent her days painting. Hours at the computer had given her a touch of carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist. After 10 days of nailing in New Zealand last summer, it flared to surgical proportions and ran all the way up her arm.

"I guess I overdid it," she said sheepishly.

Bill Poulsen's bad knees keep him from climbing ladders, so he parked himself by a Habitat table saw and cranked out sections of wall frame.

Poulsen and his wife, Doris, of Joppa, Md., joined the group eight years ago after a near-fatal car wreck left her with a paralyzed throat and shortness of breath. "Bill said if I lived, he would do whatever I wanted to do."

What she wanted was to help people get their own homes. "I felt God must have saved my life for some reason," she said. "My physical capabilities were limited, but I swept houses and picked up trash. I felt like I contributed."

A half-mile away, the groups' RVs dotted the parking lot of a Habitat warehouse, electrical cords snaking into the warehouse's outlets. KOA Kampground it wasn't. But what it lacked in piney foliage and nostalgic campfires, it compensated for with camaraderie.

Folding tables inside the warehouse became Care-A-Vanner central. Every evening at about 5, the group gathered to review their accomplishments and misadventures. Some nights, they'd share a potluck supper or take in a fish fry at a nearby restaurant. One Wednesday, they donned brown Habitat T-shirts and ate supper at the First Baptist Church, where they were guests of honor.

John and Joanne Sainsbury of Brevard County reminisced with Lloyd and Gail Gridley about their first build together, four years ago in California, where the walls were constructed from rice straw bales.

They lamented the loss of another regular couple, who quit Care-A-Vanning in Mississippi, after field mice invaded everyone's RVs. "Jim and I got to where we could set roof trusses in three hours," John Sainsbury said, "but she didn't want to travel anymore."

Talk often returned to a favorite topic: The homeowners who move into these houses.

Under the Habitat formula, homeowners pay off a no-interest mortgage that covers the cost of land and materials. The Vero Beach affiliate also charges a homeowners' association fee for its subdivision and an escrow payment toward upkeep.

For Rosalie Bain, a 44-year-old nursing aide, that will total about $315 a month for the small three-bedroom, one-bath house the Care-A-Vanners were building for her. Apartments in Vero Beach rent for between $500 and $1,000 a month, she said, so she and her 18-year-old son are living with her parents.

To qualify for a Habitat house, Bain and her son must work at least 300 hours with the volunteer builders. This "sweat equity" assures commitment -- Habitat forecloses on less than 2 percent of its mortgages. It also forges a personal bond between volunteers and homeowners.

Walt Leesch recalled his first build in Michigan. The homeowner was a paraplegic who dropped out of his wheelchair and pulled himself along the floor to paint baseboards. "That's the main thing about this," Leesch said. "To feel good about ourselves in return for all the good things we've had."

One Toledo, Ohio, homeowner had never lived in a house with running water, Al Palmer said. He remembers one daughter exulting, "I can have friends over now!" The night before the dedication, the whole family sneaked into the house and took showers.

You could tell, Palmer said, because someone left a rubber duck behind.

Getting involved

For information on RV Care-A-Vanners, call Habitat for Humanity International headquarters at 1-800-422-4828, ext. 2446; e-mail; or write to RV Care-A-Vanners, 121 Habitat St., Americus, GA 31709. For information on local Habitat affiliates, call:

Hillsborough: (813) 239-2242

Pinellas: (727) 536-4755

East Pasco: (352) 567-1444

Central Pasco: (813) 929-0177

West Pasco: (727) 859-9038

Hernando: (352) 754-1159

Citrus: (352) 563-2744

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