Turning houses into homes

Laredo, Texas – For some, spring break is a time for drinking and beaches. For a proud and select group of Temple students, that first full week in March presents an opportunity to do something

Laredo, Texas – For some, spring break is a time for drinking and beaches. For a proud and select group of Temple students, that first full week in March presents an opportunity to do something for someone else.

Among other trips and constant local work, Temple’s hyperactive Office of Community Relations fills a small number of highly-coveted slots with carefully selected student volunteers and administrators, chosen for leadership, teamwork and diversity, to work with Habitat for Humanity during spring break.

This year, Temple News staff writer Christopher Wink acted as a correspondent and relayed his experiences from Laredo, Texas.

Sunday, March 5

Our group of 18 students and five administrators, many still strangers, arrived in Laredo before 11 a.m. local time. While the group absorbed the 80-plus degree weather, warm breezes and flat dry land, trip coordinator Jason Riley, assistant director of Temple Volunteers, rounded up two of the finest panel vans Texas had to offer. Settled in, our group of 23 was on the road and reached Laredo’s splendorous First United Baptist Church by 2:30 p.m.

Oh, how our enthusiasm would have grown had the church not been locked and empty. Strike one. No worries; the sun was entertainment enough for our team, fresh from Philadelphia, where it was currently 40 degrees and windy.

After a couple hours of just such unplanned team-building and a few phone calls by Riley, we were in what would be our home for the week – vacant classrooms of a Laredo church. After meeting the leaders of the local Habitat chapter, the group had its next chance to socialize. It was remarkable how smoothly that went. This is the art of Riley, and what makes Temple’s service immersion trips such powerful experiences. The trips consistently and successfully match those who might not have previously interacted, like Dan Gallagher, a junior economics major from Bucks County, who during the trip became friends with Komal Patel, a sophomore pre-nursing major whose parents were born in India. We went to sleep side-by-side on the floor that night, with the team already meshing as Riley had planned months before.

Monday, March 6

We were woken before 7 a.m. by the church’s men’s group who

treated us to breakfast – Texas style. Oh, how the meat flowed. After my second breakfast beef burrito and third helping of scrambled eggs (conveniently mixed with sausage), I was ready for a hard day’s


The group and I boarded our vans, and moved out, passing green lawns supported by constantly active sprinklers, all surrounded by the desert of southern Texas.

We got to our worksite, a small, rundown home with less than 1,000 square feet of living space, at 8 a.m. Our enthusiasm was highlighted by one of our group’s student leaders, junior sociology major Nicole Finnie, and her shouts of early morning excitement.

Then the day’s work was divided. Some painted, some built a carport and others further demolished and cleaned the interior. It was nearly 4 p.m. and friendships were continuing to form when we loaded our vans.

After taking lukewarm showers at the church, we traveled to nearby Texas A&M International University for a lecture on the history of Laredo.

Having our hunger for the academic satisfied, group administrators Lisa Prestileo, coordinator of Off-Campus Housing, Bill Bergman, vice president of Operations, Capt. Eileen Bradley of Campus Police and Juvencio Gonzalez, of the Office of Community Relations, took the group for ice cream. It was then that the group was granted its best chance to meld.

Finger-pointing aside, someone’s navigation wasn’t terribly acute and our trip back to the church became an aimless tour through backcountry Laredo. Somewhere between the suggestions of crossing the border and wrong turns on one-way roads, the group of strangers became surprisingly well-connected.

As I watched the group’s other student leader, Antron Watson, a junior political science major, lead his newest friends in a less-than-harmonious, screaming version of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” I realized these 17 students around me weren’t giving up their spring breaks, but enjoying every minute of them.

Tuesday, March 7

With some waking up sorer than others, the group got to the worksite a little late, but plenty eager. It was a day of more hammering and more unlikely bonding. Mawata Dunbar, a junior nursing major from Liberia, stood by Lithuanian American Gaja Stirbys, a freshman education major, who laughed with Lamar Wallace, a freshman bio-chemistry pre-med major from Virginia.

I was charged with building a frame for the Jacuzzi that was to be set the following week. Needless to say, I was terribly fortunate to be paired with Andrea Graham, a junior biology and Spanish major, who politely made suggestions in her quiet way to avoid injuring my fragile male ego.

In the sappy way that non-profits tend to market themselves, we were 23 remarkably diverse individuals working together to build a house for a family who would have few options otherwise. In Laredo, where 25 percent of families are under the poverty level – compared to 18 percent in Philadelphia – it’s a remarkable accomplishment.

After work, we went to one of Laredo’s fine Chinese buffets. In a city that’s population is less than 1 percent Asian, the fried rice wasn’t even terrible. From there the group was sold images of an oasis in the desert: a nearby hotel swimming pool. As became our experience for the week, things actually weren’t always bigger in Texas, as the pool was more of a freezing puddle than a refreshing treat.

Luckily, as became custom, it was hard to break the group’s spirit. It was Lee Griffith, a beanpole of a junior English major, who first leaped in, which prompted most of the group to follow him and play together.

The swim ended with sophomore art major Maggie Gallagher getting a lot more “Marco” than “Polo.” Mirroring the fun of previous nights, the group closed the day with basketball and making board games more fun than they should ever be.

Wednesday, March 8

The group worked mostly on cosmetic and other smaller tasks, like freshman political science major Anna Walker’s masterful caulking job. There was some interior wall construction and kitchen cabinet manipulation, secretly spearheaded by sophomore biochemistry and philosophy major Kelly Karr.

The day was done and we made our way back to our temporary home to find out that the leader of another group working with Habitat was making us a feast of a dinner. I enjoyed a fruit appetizer with junior Tia Jackson, a marketing major, and shared senior psychology major Tracie Lear’s hipster lingo over flounder and greens.

I slept outside that night, with clouds ruining my opportunity to describe my siesta as star-strewn, yet I continued to find it odd how much I, someone who craves dissension and difficulty, genuinely liking the group by which I was surrounded.

Thursday, March 9

I personally made up for our group being late again with shoddy cuts of exterior trim, and sophomore education major Tanequa Neale made her contribution by getting more primer on her jeans than the walls. It was our last full day of work, but the approaching end wasn’t discussed nearly as much as the realization that our group had actually begun to fix up the once ugly, brown fixer-upper.

The work day was done quickly, as it always was that week, and we were taken to a small fiesta in a local state park. Girls danced, Gallagher tried, and the rest of us mingled with a host of other party-goers, all associated with the active Laredo chapter of Habitat.

It was still early in the night when a pinata was strung up and the group got to swinging. It took a fearsome Liberian follow-through from Dunbar and a patient hack by Bergman, along with a host of other less-than-accurate thrusts, to bring the colorful donkey down, spilling its candy-filled insides.

From there, the party moved to a jalapeno eating contest featuring four boastful boys, myself included, and fire-tongued Jacqui Southern, a senior biology major. In the end, Southern cleaned her bowl and raised her hands in triumph – before I was done crying over the first. It was a good night.

Friday, March 10

For the record, I did finish seven jalapenos. Was I last? Yes. Did I disgrace my family in the eyes of a Laredo population that is 95 percent Latino? Probably. But, I did so with honor – until the morning. In the interest of avoiding bathroom humor, I will leave it at that.

After that final half-day of work, we went to a restaurant to eat together for what we assumed would be the last time. From there we went to the city’s least likely popular attraction – semi-professional ice hockey.

We screamed for the Laredo Bucks and booed the Odessa Jackalopes. My personal highlight of the night was watching junior political science major Javius Cain earn his title of “fan of the game.” If the Bucks didn’t host only female cheerleaders out of sexist stereotypes, I would have thought Cain had as good an opportunity at finding job placement there as anyone else.

I looked up and down the row in between goals. I knew the names of 23 people I had almost never seen a week earlier. We had completed a week’s worth of work on a home that would help deserving people. My spring break of work wasn’t too bad at all. We returned back to the church and stole a few final hours together, shouting and laughing.

Saturday, March 11

It was before 4 a.m. that we began to prepare for the short trip to the Laredo International Airport and go home. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be back in Philadelphia for another 42 hours.

Our 5 a.m. flight from Laredo was delayed. “Complications,” an American Airlines ticket agent said was the reason, but assured, “You’ll be out of here by 1:30 p.m.” Well, 1:30 didn’t work out. Neither did 5:30. And 7:30 became more like 9. But, we got to Dallas. Fifteen hours in the tiny Laredo airport, no big deal.

So, Dallas/Forth Worth had no way to get us to Philly that night. One night in a hotel? Why not! We each got a room in a hotel near the airport and got one last night together.

Unfortunately, that was the last night, as the only flights we could find split us apart the next day.

Sunday, March 12

I woke up at 10 a.m., alone in my hotel room. Most of my group was almost home by then. But I trudged on. Another day of airport waiting, but my patience wasn’t strained.

“Fugit hora,” is what the Latin-speaking of us say when we want to avoid the cliche, “time flies.” Despite a history of fun experiences going by too quickly, the oddly well-formed group connection seemed to extend, not reduce our time together. What had been seven days felt like months of bonding, which, I suppose, is what round-the-clock contact might do.

I am hardly a pleasant person. But, watching the Delaware River meet the Schuylkill River, I was surprisingly satisfied with my week.

I owed a lot to Laredo Habitat, and I owed more to Temple, which offers such a unique experience. Directionless driving, jalapenos, late-night games of Taboo: It was truly an extraordinary week.

Chris Wink can be reached at cwink32@yahoo.com.

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