The only construction project Kalene Rice, 14, had ever been involved with was when she helped her father build a birdhouse. Cassie Rudy, 17, also couldn’t remember even holding a hammer. “I might have used one once to hammer a nail in the wall to hang a picture, but I’m not sure,” she says.
If Cassie wasn’t sure then, she is now. She joined Kalene and about 180 other young people from the Frederick Maryland Stake in Chestertown, Maryland, to build two houses in two days. Cassie has the callouses on her hands to prove it.
When John Lewis, the Frederick Stake Young Men’s second counselor, was thinking about what his stake should do for its 1993 youth conference, this thought hit him: Let’s build some houses. Let’s show the youth what their limits are and prove to them that they can accomplish more than they believed possible. He was enthusiastic. He pitched the ideas to other stake leaders. They were enthusiastic. He contacted the Chester Valley Habitat for Humanity, a Christian housing ministry that helps provide decent housing for low-income families in the northern part of the state. They were excited to get the LDS youth involved. Now all Brother Lewis had to do was convince the kids—all 180 of them—that building two houses is what they should do for youth conference.
“When I found out we were going to build a house for youth conference, I was, like, ‘There’s no way. Not in two days,’” said 16-year-old Lindsay Meyers.
Last July, the Frederick youth arrived at the two job sites—located about a block apart from each other—and found the foundation poured for each home. That was it. The materials—the nails, shingles, plywood, two-by-fours, siding, doors, windows, showers, and plumbing equipment had been delivered to each house. Installing it all was up to them.
The youth assigned to each house were separated into 15 different groups, with an adult build-team leader delegated to each team. Each house site also had a professional builder serving as foreman to oversee the project. Everyone was asked to bring a hammer and a pencil. And to control who was doing what, each team wore a different colored T-shirt. Everything was set. Then the weather decided it wasn’t going to cooperate.
For the first time in several decades, three consecutive days in Chestertown were over 100 degrees. Throw in some intense humidity (the 90–95 percent variety), and things heated up considerably.
Nicole Spencer, a Laurel in the Mt. Airy Ward, noticed the heat but didn’t mind it. “Being able to work and drive nails and stuff kind of makes you forget about how hot it is,” she said. “When I first heard what we were going to do, I was kind of excited we were actually going to build a house.”
Edward Rice, 17, and Samantha Gabriel, 15, both got their day started by holding pieces of wood together so it could be measured for door and window openings. Rick Orchard, 15, did his part by moving wood closer to the job site. “Yeah, I’ve been sweating. I also get the feeling that I know what I’m doing is right. I can feel the Spirit with me,” he said.
As for Lindsay, by the time the first day was complete, she was a believer. “I had a few doubts in my mind whether we could accomplish it. Not now,” she said. “Seeing what you’ve made, and accomplishing a goal and seeing a finished product makes it fun. I think the main reason it’s worth it is we’re helping somebody. I feel like this is totally worth my time. Being in the heat and sweating doesn’t matter.”
Working alongside the Frederick youth were several members of the two families who would move into the homes once they were completed. One girl, 16-year-old Chalita Rochester, was excited about the project and enjoyed working alongside the LDS youth. “I didn’t know any Mormons before this. To get kids to go out and build a house is great,” Chalita said. “They could be just sitting home watching TV, but they’re out here doing it. They are very active teenagers.”
With 90 kids on each job site and plenty of adults helping out, it’s amazing how fast a house can go up. One day it’s a barren lot with only a foundation in the middle of it. Twenty-four hours later a house is being built along with testimonies.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here. Every time I come to a youth conference, a piece of my testimony grows. These last two days I have really gained a testimony of service,” said Brooke Sattley, a Laurel in the Damascus Ward.
“The fact that we’re all doing this for the service and not getting paid makes me feel good inside,” said Nicole. “And it means a lot more to me because we’re doing this for someone we have gotten to know.”
Nicole had no trouble keeping busy. One of her first jobs was to help install joists, the horizontal beams running from wall to wall to support the floor. Theron Virgin, a priest in the Monocacy Ward, helped work on the subfloor once the joists were in place. Dawn Rowzee, 16, took some two-by-fours and helped build the frame for the wall, while Jay Wahlquist, 16, helped nail in the support beams before the floor went in. With sweat pouring down his face, Jay sincerely said, “You can have fun doing this, and I have really enjoyed myself the last couple of days. I was able to start new friendships and strengthen others. But the greatest thing was the service that we did. And it isn’t the kind of service we sometimes do because we’re forced to do it. This has really strengthened my testimony.”
By Saturday night, it was time to clean up for a testimony meeting held at a nearby Methodist church. Both sites looked considerably different. Two houses were now standing, where 48 hours before all the youth could look at was a blueprint of what was hoped would be built there.
Everybody was grimy and extremely tired. But the youth of the Frederick Maryland Stake were smiling. They had provided in volunteer labor the equivalent of one man working full time for 18 months. They did that in two days. They built 75 percent of two houses. The remaining 25 percent was completed by other Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Those volunteers included many of the LDS youth, who made the two-hour drive back to Chestertown a few days later so they could help finish what they had started.
“This whole project depended on our attitude,” said Cassie. “We could have sat here the whole time and not worked. But that wouldn’t have been any fun. It’s a really good feeling to know we can do things like this.” Adds 14-year-old April Hough, “This has taken more time and more work, but it has been so useful because we’re helping someone who is less fortunate.”
Maybe Jay said it best. “Ignorance is sometimes good because when you don’t know how hard it is to do something, you don’t think of it as being hard when you do it. Heavenly Father has given me a chance to see things in a wonderful way and to live in a church that gives us so much.”
This youth conference was a chance for these young Latter-day Saints to give something back. The two houses in Chestertown, Maryland, will always stand as testaments to that.
The Inside Job
When Brooke Sattley heard her stake was going to build two houses in two days, she decided to do something more. “I heard about the youth conference at the same time I was looking for a Laurel project,” says Brooke.
One thought led to another, and before long Brooke had a project. If the people needed a house, she concluded, they might need some things to go inside it too.
“I went to the youth conference’s main coordinator and he gave me a list of things the families needed—mostly small stuff,” she says. “He also told me the people needed a washer and dryer, but not to worry about the big things.”
Well, she did worry. And before long, members of the Frederick Maryland Stake were notifying her they had a washer and dryer, a microwave, a dresser, a box spring and mattress, as well as smaller kitchen appliances and silverware they were willing to donate.
Initially, Brooke printed a list of items she needed to get the project rolling. She then included the list with a letter she wrote to each bishop in her stake explaining the project. The bishops read Brooke’s letter to their congregations, and before long, people were calling her to find out where they could drop off their stuff.
“I had no idea so many people would get involved. I think it’s so wonderful how the Saints of the Church can just pull together and totally give their all,” she says.
“It has been frustrating at times,” she adds, “but I’ve been so glad I could put forth my entire effort to help these families out. Nothing beats the feeling you get inside.”