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SU, SUNY-ESF students build knowledge, friendships and a place to call home
SU, SUNY-ESF students build knowledge, friendships and a place to call homeApril 24, 2003Nicci Brownnicbrown@syr.edu
With Commencement just around the corner, Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF students have just celebrated a graduation with a difference: That of a house. It may sound odd, but 134 Annetta St., Syracuse, is no stranger to academic lectures and it’s had thousands of contact hours over the last six months. Now, thanks to an effort that overcame one of the coldest winters in recent history, the two-story house has graduated from being a run-down eyesore to a place a young mother and her three children are proud to call home. That transformation was recognized April 27 with a special house dedication ceremony.
The Annetta Street property is the latest-and one of the most ambitious-projects of the Syracuse University/SUNY-ESF Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which started rehabilitating the property in September 2002. But the project involved more than renovating a house; it also helped bridge the gap between academia and the “real world” by serving as an off-campus classroom for subjects as diverse as “nutrition on low incomes,” “urban storm-water runoff and water quality” and “promoting cultural diversity in student organizations.”
“It was a ‘learning lab’ where students could physically contribute to the community while learning about societal, theoretical and technical issues,” says Jocelyn Smith, education chair of the chapter and a sophomore in public relations at SU’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Smith says holding lectures at the Annetta Street property gave participating students a context and purpose for the service they were offering and directly turned their energies to solving the problems they had just learned about.
It also set a benchmark for other university-based chapters around the U.S. The Syracuse University/SUNY-ESF chapter’s lecture series has been held up as a model by Habitat for Humanity. The chapter’s president, Kim Gugino, who is a junior in policy studies in The College of Arts and Sciences, also helped establish a service learning class in the public affairs department at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “Habitat for Humanity and Modern Housing Issues” is a one-credit class in which students complete at least 35 hours of service with Habitat for Humanity and learn about it as an organization. The class also addresses the societal issues connected with the need for affordable housing. Gugino has already worked with students at Cornell University to help establish a similar class there.
This kind of innovation and leadership is not unusual for the SU/SUNY-ESF chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which is one of only a handful of student chapters in the U.S. to have taken on the actual sponsorship of a home. “I knew when I met this group of students that they were special and very serious, but I had no idea how ambitious they really were,” says Suzanne Williams, executive director of the Syracuse City Habitat for Humanity, which actually owns the Annetta Street property. “They will be responsible for a deserving family being able to own their own home and experience the security of belonging to a neighborhood for many years to come.”
In this case, that deserving family is Jimelle Richardson and her children Daishaun, 11; Jeffrey, 8; and Khaziah, 4. Richardson assumes ownership of the house some time next month when the construction is complete. She will then hold a 20-year, interest-free mortgage with Habitat for Humanity. “I’m extremely excited about the whole process,” Richardson says. “I’ve been waiting for about six years to find a house for my children to live in, and through Habitat, I’m finally able to make that dream come true for my kids.”
The Annetta Street house was obtained through a partnership between Habitat for Humanity International and Key Bank. Richardson was chosen to be the new owner of the property after going through Habitat’s “partner family selection process,” which requires, among other things, a credit check, a panel interview and a commitment to serve at least 400 sweat-equity hours on Habitat property.
Paul Walsh, the Annetta Street project manager and a senior in construction management at SUNY-ESF, knows all about sweat-equity. Since work began last year, Walsh has overseen the thousands of service hours performed by student, faculty and community volunteers. He has worked on the house most weekends, as well as after class during the week. “If there was a sunny day this semester, I was on the roof or putting on the siding,” Walsh says. “My parents often provided lunches for everyone at the site and allowed me to devote myself to my studies and Habitat- my father even lent me his Suburban for the entire year- I don’t think he’ll want it back after what it’s been through!”
Walsh says, in addition to plenty of rain and snow, the project has had its fair share of the unexpected. “Renovation projects are nothing but surprises,” he says. “Water damage and strange building materials discontinued in the 1960s were the most common.” But there were also plenty of pleasant surprises too. Walsh says the dedication of student volunteers was unwavering, with many of them giving up their spring breaks to work on the project. In addition, SUNY-ESF professor, Dr. Bob Meyer, incorporated the design and construction of the home’s deck into one of his classes. And Walsh’s classmates, Greg Rust and Jim Daggett, supervised the roofing and framing of the home respectively.
Walsh also had a great deal of support from local contractors. “Jim Mooney, who is a licensed electrician, taught me how to install the entire electrical system in the house,” Walsh says. “He oversaw the process, inspected, did troubleshooting, called in permits, and has been a phone call away for more consulting. He didn’t charge Habitat a penny for his time.” Other support came from Dick Duerle, who did the plumbing on the house; Gordon Eyer, who worked on the home’s heating and ventilation system; George Gleason, who did all of the interior wood-finishing; ESF student Chad Cusimano and his father provided countertops through their company Empire Contractors; and Dick Kornbluth, and his company Entherm, installed insulation. All worked for free. Walsh was also helped by Chase-Pitkin, which allowed him to purchase items at the best sale price of the year, tax free, with no delivery charges.
But the bulk of the financial support for the $25,000 project has come from Syracuse University’s Vision Fund, which provides grants to projects that focus on providing intellectually rich diversity experiences for students. The 2002 Vision Fund cycle was designed to support the fourth initiative of Vice Chancellor Deborah Freund’s Academic Plan, to enhance the intellectual climate through diversity. The Annetta Street project has also dovetailed neatly with other aspects of the Academic Plan, including the promotion of community-based learning and the integration of theory and practice.
“It’s been pretty amazing to reflect on the entire process,” Gugino says. “To watch it grow from an idea, to grant writing, to getting the house, and then seeing volunteers at the house with Jimelle. It’s been a great experience to see the whole thing come to fruition.”
For Walsh, who will graduate in May, the project has also brought something less quantifiable than skills or knowledge. “In the beginning, I wanted to do this project to enhance my learning experience for my major, construction management,” he says. “I was building a house for a future homeowner with student volunteers. Now, I am building this house for a friend with the help of many other friends I’ve made along the way.”