DANVILLE — The air is still cool when small groups of people begin gathering Tuesday morning at a home construction site in a Danville neighborhood, a block west of Garfield School.
Normally at this time, a woman in a dark blue uniform would be in her squad car patrolling the city's streets. But on this day, Commander Jane McFadden is at the site helping three people hoist a heavy, wooden wall section from the ground and set it in place next to an upright wall section, like a giant puzzle piece.
"I want to help, even if I can only stay for an hour," says McFadden, on break from her job as a police officer. "It's such a wonderful thing that they're doing for this family, especially on this day."
McFadden is one of more than 100 volunteers — many of them first responders and Illinois National Guard soldiers — helping Habitat of Humanity of Danville build the shell of a house, at 1109 Robinson St., on the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance.
The project to build a three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch-style home is the organization's 50th in the Danville area. It's being done for Kimberly Bryant and her two sons — Spurgeon Barber, 11, and Trenton Barber, 2.
Before a hammer hits the first nail, several police officers and firefighters plant a row of American flags on the north and south sides of the site. Then, they — along with Habitat officials, local dignitaries and other volunteers — pause to remember the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"On the 11th anniversary of a day when there was so much destruction, it's great to see so many people come out and build something positive for the community," John Graves, Habitat's executive director, tells the crowd.
Moments later, he kicks off the project. "Let's raise these walls!"
That's construction supervisor Mike Cundiff's cue to take charge. Under his direction, small groups carry the exterior and interior wall sections to their proper place. Workers use a level to make sure the walls are plumb, then nail them down.
"It's in place, but it's upside down," Cundiff tells Bryant after she helps place a 4-foot-long interior wall.
Bryant, who has a lot of energy — despite waking up at 3 a.m., too excited to sleep — but no construction experience, laughs and then helps her group flip the wall over carefully. After Habitat board President Erich Hannah cuts out the door, Bryant writes in black marker "God bless this house and all who enter" on the plywood nearby.
Shortly before noon, a second shift of volunteers arrives to help put on the roof trusses and decking, install windows and put on half-inch thick foam insulation on the walls that, along with other insulation, will make the house energy efficient. Many of them are Danville firefighters, some of whom traveled to New York City shortly after the attacks to serve in the honor guard at the funerals of their fallen brothers.
Alongside them are members of the National Guard's 1544th Transportation Company, which is based in Paris, Ill., and has a detachment in Danville. The highly decorated unit lost five members during its deployment to Iraq in 2004 to 2005.
Though that tour and a second one in Kuwait and Iraq with another unit from the Chicago area in 2010 and 2011 weighed on Spc. Joey Tibbs' mind earlier in the morning, the Paris man now cracks jokes and enjoys the camaraderie of working alongside his fellow soldiers and people who were strangers until now.
"It feels good to give someone a home," says Tibbs, who, along with other members of his unit and Oakwood firefighters, was scheduled to work a three-hour shift but stays much longer. "And I've never done this before. I'm learning a lot."
At 3 p.m., the third shift, which includes Medix Ambulance and the Bismarck Community Ambulance Service personnel, takes over. They cover the roof with felt liner and cover the gable ends with plywood.
As the sun lowers, Graves looks around. There's still much to do before he can turn over the keys to Bryant next spring — build the porch, roof the house, install wiring and plumbing. But he's elated by all that's been accomplished in just over nine hours.
"It usually takes us three or four weeks to do all of this," he says, adding most house builds are done with six to 10 volunteers.
Inside, Bryant and her oldest son walk around and read the Bible verses and messages that volunteers have written on the interior walls.
"This is my room," Spurgeon says proudly, as he stands in a space on the southwest corner. A soldier has written "1544th TC was here" on the wood above the window.
Tears form in Bryant's eyes, much as they did early this morning as she looked out among the volunteers. "It's so amazing that so many who didn't even know me are willing to help me be a first-time homeowner."