Habitat for Humanity Build in Mason, Texas

“For a community to be whole and healthy, it must be based on people’s love and concern for each other.”

-Millard Fuller, Founder of Habitat for Humanity

I’m going to start this post with an aside that has nothing to do with our build in Mason. It’s been awhile since I blogged and it’s already been 3 weeks since we left Texas and traveled home to Utah. Normally returning to the house is the time when I catch up on blog posts since I have consistent access to the internet but despite wanting to say so much about our wonderful build in Mason and to share some of my hiking adventures over the past couple weeks, I just haven’t wanted to sit down and write. Actually, I haven’t wanted to sit in front of the computer at all. It’s not that I’ve been more busy than usual… it’s more like I’ve wanted to use the time for other things – reading mostly, but also extra baking projects – things that have called to me and nourished me (no pun intended with regards to the baking). So – I’ve been doing that, and really relishing it.

But, going backwards: we had an incredible experience during our 2 weeks in Mason. I have had so many fantastic experiences building with different groups of people but the Mason build was unique in that not only did we have a wonderful (and knowledgeable! And super-friendly!) group of volunteers to work with, but we were treated to local hospitality at an unreal level. I have never spent much time in a town of only a couple thousand people so part of my experience could be true of many other tiny towns across the U.S., but I truly believe Mason is a special place, filled with extraordinarily big-hearted people.

Nestled in the Hill Country, the town is populated mostly by families whose ancestors arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries from Germany but Mason has also attracted numerous artists, retirees, and other people committed to maintaining a thriving, tight-knit community. The people of Mason really care about Mason, and especially the other people who live there. The annual arrival of us RV care-a-vanners is celebrated in local newspapers (which wrote up multiple articles about us during our two weeks there), the town radio station (which asked us to do live interviews), and mostly by the people themselves, who came out in force to provide us with home-cooked meals, opportunities to tour historical houses and view art collections, and offer invitations to meeting groups of all kinds. My second day I was invited to join the knitting club (even though I hadn’t knitted anything in 15 years and kind of forgot what I had known). We had candy delivered to us on Valentine’s Day. We were invited to stay with people whenever we returned. Recognizing that we volunteers had traveled to help build a house for one of their own families, the citizens of Mason opened their hearts to us. And I don’t mean that in just a cliché way – I mean that I have never received so many hugs and so much gratitude in a place before. Everywhere I went – the gas station, the food market, the co-op (a cafe) – I was thanked. Even when I wasn’t wearing a Habitat shirt or paint-stained clothes I was picked out and given a few words of appreciation. Of course it felt good to be immediately accepted into this amazing community, but what touched me was the commitment all these people made in various ways to helping strengthen and support their neighbors. They invest in their town and their fellow citizens.

At the top of the list of Habitat supporters is Keith, a retired engineer who is the volunteer architect for the Mason affiliate. His attention to detail and dedication to building the highest quality house was evident in the stacks of plans he spent time creating, the provisions for energy savings measures that will significantly reduce the homeowner’s monthly utility bills, and the creation of a construction methodology that would optimize the use of materials. His system is to have the first group of care-a-vanners (us) prepare and assemble everything so that work on-site can be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The first day of the build we all began in the warehouse by cutting and labeling every piece of lumber for the house – interior and exterior wall plates, door cripples, headers, blocking, rafters, truss bracing, and more. From there we began assembly of some of the components off the plans (interior walls and rafters) while kitting up some of the largest and heaviest assemblies (such as the 2×6 exterior walls) to build on site. Building walls and rafters entirely off of plans was a new experience for me (it is more common to mark top and bottom plates from the layout on the slab and then add the studs, cripples, headers, etc.), and one I found to be a great learning experience and very interesting to boot: It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. In addition to all that, teams worked to sand and stain the huge 16-foot exposed beams, paint all the doors and trim, stain and wash the concrete slab, and transport the materials and constructed components to the site. According to Keith, on the first day after we left they would be literally raising all the walls and tying them together in a matter of hours. Rafters would be placed within the next day. All this would be because of the prep work that had been done during the 2 weeks I was there. I would have loved to stay and see the house go up not just because of my own desire to continue the work, but because the care in the design of it’s construction was so evident. His dedication to creating such a fine-tuned system was imprinted on every step of the process.

Keith and David reviewing the plans

The volunteers I worked alongside were equally amazing. Because the town and the people of Mason are so kind and hospitable, the care-a-vanner builds are easily some of the most popular and attract many of the same seasoned folks year after year. I worked alongside people who have been on the road volunteering with Habitat for over a decade – and gained much from their knowledge. I learned just as much from some of the newer volunteers and had the pleasure of helping people learn a new thing or two. House leaders David and Roxanne (who functioned as the construction supervisors) went above and beyond in their organization of the tasks, their commitment to building the best house possible, and their patience in explaining the procedures for what we were doing. Our Team Leaders Christine and Bryce also went out of the way to make sure we could find everything we needed, regularly interrupting their own tasks to help the rest of us. And the people I worked alongside willingly spent a great deal of time doing their tasks to the best of their ability, unafraid to triple-check the plans, question something that didn’t seem right, and spend up to double the time to produce the highest quality results. I can’t say enough good things about our crew and can only inadequately summarize by saying it was a true pleasure to work with each and every one of them.

Care-a-vanner Crew

Roxanne reviewing the cut list with Christine, Joyce, and I

Peggy and Ralph sanding one of the exposed beams

Susan and Joyce cutting a top plate

If you need a large Jenga set made, I can help you out with that. I can also help run through a cut list. Also for the record, this isn’t everything.

Susan and I marking top and bottom plates for the interior walls

Jeff and Bryce kitting up exterior wall components

Marking wall plates off the plans and preparing to notch the door opening on the bottom plate

Susan, Karen, and Christine laying out an interior wall

Christine nailing a top plate on

The All-Women Wall Crew is featured in the local paper next to our stack of walls

Tom and Vic marking the angle where the rafters will join

Ralph, Pam, and Peggy staining the beams

Jeff routering for inlaid blocking

Me nailing gussets onto the rafters

Ralph was a master at free-handing the rafter angles with the skillsaw

Ralph, Bryce, and Jay assembling the 2×6 rafters that will span the 4th bedroom area

Peggy polyurethaning the beams

The Men’s Rafter Team: Tom, Ralph, Jay, Vic, and Bryce

The Women’s Rafter Team: Christine, Karen, Susan, and myself

Tom finishing our stairs to the loading dock. We had to use the Pythagorean Theorem for this.

Ralph and I sanding porch beams

Joyce, Karen, and Susan painting

Spying on the painting crew

Sunset at the city park campground, Mason, Texas

Roxanne and I knitting during happy hour

Sunset after happy hour

From our arranged tour of the historical Seaquist House:

Historical Seaquist House, Mason, Texas

Mysterious 3rd Floor “Ballroom,” Seaquist House, Mason, Texas

Finally, I need to single out an unexpected act of generosity by Sue, a local artist (and Keith’s wife). While showing me her collection of paintings during a dinner they hosted at their house, Sue and I talked a bit about her work and her gallery downtown. I fell in love with Sue’s bold brushwork and vivid colors and I loved chatting with her about some of our mutually-favorite artists. Too soon however it was time to leave, but the next day as I visited her at the gallery and saw more of her amazing work I was struck by many of her original images as well as her studies impressionist artists such as van Gogh. As I was saying goodbye Sue asked which of the paintings that I liked best among the ones I had pointed out to Tom.

And then she gave it to me.

I have always maintained that I receive more from building with Habitat than I give, but on top of everything else I gained during my 2 weeks in Mason (which includes new friends, deep gratitude, and an new-found appreciation for community) I left with a tangible reminder of my time there – a beautiful painting.

Sue’s gallery – The Mason Artisan Gallery

Koi Fish, by Sue Kaan