Habitat building homes fast in Gifford
GIFFORD — Several 2-by-4s rested on the floor of Benjamin and Christy Calhoun's new home going up in Gifford.
Some of the boards simply had names written on them. Others had drawings and best wishes. The boards were sold by Loda United Methodist Church as a way to make money for a blitz build in Gifford.
The Rev. Steve Anderson said the church sold the boards for $50 apiece. Forty were gone in a couple of weeks, amounting to $2,000. Sunday school children were among those contributing, and they were sure to make their boards colorful.
The Loda church is among several that are part of the Paxton Ministerial Association home-building effort. They are building a home for the Calhouns.
The formal start of the blitz build was Monday morning. After tips on safety and a prayer, volunteers scattered to three locations to start building houses. About 75 volunteers signed up to help.
The Calhoun home is located next door to the future home of Randy and Tracy Westmoreland, in the 200 block of East Plumb Street, where volunteers from American Baptist Home Mission Societies and the Great Rivers Region of American Baptist Churches USA were hard at work.
Across town, on the far west edge of the village, volunteers had hammers and saws at work on Summit Street, where Margie Lewis' new home will stand.
"Be safe. Have fun because not everyone here is not an expert."
That's what volunteers were told prior to the start of the blitz, sponsored by Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County. In addition to construction of the three new houses, Habitat will manage the repair of five storm-damaged properties as well as 12 landscaping projects.
Construction of the new houses is scheduled to conclude a week from Friday, June 13.
Among those on hand Monday was State Sen. Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign), a Gifford native.
A bill Frerichs sponsored in the Senate that affects communities like Gifford has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Pat Quinn.
The legislation aims to limit increases in assessed valuation on commercial property for businesses that need to rebuild after tornados.
Frerichs said he is also hopeful grant money is coming for other needed Gifford projects.
Many volunteers traveled hundreds of miles to work in Gifford — from as far away as Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Rev. Brian Romanowski of Mahomet's First Baptist Church said many volunteers will be sleeping on cots at Rantoul's First Baptist during the two-week build.
Romanowski brought 18 men from his church to help in Gifford the week after the Nov. 17 tornado hit and alerted Baptist church officials that Gifford was largely being ignored in favor of the larger damage in Washington, Ill., which was hit the same day.
The foundation and floors for all three homes were already prepared for the volunteers when they arrived. The goal was to get the walls up on each home by the end of work Monday.
All hands on deck
"Overwhelming" is how Randy Westmoreland described seeing volunteers help build the house he and his family will live in.
As part of the agreement with Habitat for Humanity, home recipients must put in 500 volunteer hours.
The Westmorelands, Calhouns and Lewis were all working at their sites Monday morning.
The Westmorelands have been living in a camper until their new house is up.
"Our kids are saying, 'At least we'll appreciate our new home more,'" Tracy Westmoreland said of the camper experience.
"It's all worth it," her husband said. "It will be good to take a shower and sleep in our own bed."
Benjamin Calhoun said several family members are among the volunteers helping on their house.
"It's exciting," he said.
All of the volunteers kept moving. Those who are unskilled laborers helped where they could and took orders. A visiting reporter was even asked to hold a board while it was being sawed.
"It's a little overwhelming to have people you don't even know coming out to help," said Margie Lewis, whose house was one of the first to get hit by the tornado.
With an impressive westerly view, Lewis has a good eye at approaching weather. But she didn't see the Nov. 17 tornado coming.
Lewis, who makes a daily commute to Bloomington as a kitchen designer for Ace Windows Kitchen and Bath, said she didn't have time to see the tornado. She heard the warning sirens and got into her basement just in time.
Lewis' boyfriend, Rob Middleton of Tuscola, was among the volunteers helping at the work site. Lewis had lived at the house since seventh grade, he said. Its sentimental value made losing it even tougher. But Middleton said they were able to save many of the items in the house.
A strong wind made standing up a challenge at times during the work Monday and served as a reminder of what force caused so much damage last fall.
The volunteers are making something good come out of tragedy.
The Rev. Craig Pinley of Paxton's Evangelical Covenant Church said last week that the Paxton Area Ministerial Association had reached the $21,482 mark toward its $50,000 goal for the Calhoun home.
Not only does the Paxton ministerial effort help give a family a new home; it also helps area churches from a solidarity standpoint, Pinley said.
Victoria Goff of Pennsylvania said volunteers from her group, American Baptist Home Mission Societies, help on projects across the country.
All are responsible for paying their own expenses. The group has already worked on seven projects of this kind in 2014.
Goff said the volunteers get as much out of the projects as the recipients.
"It's so awesome to know we came here to bring hope, to restore hope, to restore faith," she said. "We go away with so much more than we came with. I get filled up every time."
Dave Hinton is editor of the Rantoul Press, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit rantoulpress.com.