Diary of a Builder

The Appalachia Service Project was founded 35 years ago with a single crew. This year, more than 2,000 crews, involving over 13,000 volunteers, will work on more than 500 homes at 25 ASP centers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

By Scott Sedam | July 31, 2004


Contact Scott Sedam
via e-mail at scott@TRUEN.com


Saturday: The Appalachian Service Project (ASP) - on my mind for months, and I'm still not ready. What to bring? Hammers, pry-bars, plumbing tools, electrical kit, hand saws, circular saw, 18V kit with extra batteries, hammer drill, extension cords, saw horses, bar level, chalk line, screw drivers,channel locks, side cutters, tin snips, etc. etc. Ahhhh ... my new Bosch mother-of-all-chop-saws. Can't wait to fire up that bad boy. Do I bring the drywall shooter? Twenty other decisions like that. Just bring it all - somebody will need it. 6:00 p.m. - Kids all show up with tool boxes, sleeping bags and a week's load of clothes, snacks, Frisbees and CDs. They are totally jazzed up.

Sunday morning: 5:15 a.m. - Church parking lot. Still dark. Seventeen vans lined up. Enterprise Rent-A-Car backed out on 12 of our reserved vans less than 48 hours ago. Can you believe that? John Z. and Bryan perform a miracle and secure the best equipment ever. CD players, cruise control, great seats - oh baby. And no charge! Saves us about $7,500. Bryan (Ford marketing guy) is feeling cocky because his Ford has a V-10. Keith and Pablo (GM engineers) fire back that it takes Ford two extra cylinders just to keep up. This will go on all week.

The Appalachia Service Project was founded 35 years ago with a single crew. This year, more than 2,000 crews, involving over 13,000 volunteers, will work on more than 500 homes at 25 ASP centers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. ASP is always in need of used trucks and vans, and this year is hoping to collect donations to purchase a few serviceable dump trucks for trash pickup. To learn more, see www.asphome.org.

Our church has participated in ASP for 18 years, but this is crazy - 120 people, including 90 high school kids and 30 adults, scurrying around in the dark. We circle up, pray for a safe trip down and head out with dawn still just a notion. CBs squawk, as some vans are cut off at traffic lights. Mike, 6 foot, 8 inches, H-P executive, takes the lead as he has for years now. He really has this down.

Ten hours to West Virginia. Stops for breakfast, bathrooms and lunch see the usual antics that come with a group of 90 teenagers. Great kids but they are, well, normal. Or maybe not. Why else would they attend a long series of preparatory meetings and fundraising events, then give up a prime week of the summer including the 4th of July holiday - just to go sleep on the floor of an old high school 500 miles away in the Appalachian Mountains, eat cafeteria food, rehab severely distressed housing and generally sweat their walkmans off? Amazingly, they think it's fun. Most come from very comfortable, upper-middle-class homes, and this may be the hardest they'll ever work. But most will volunteer again next year.

Sunday night: 30 miles on twisting, narrow roads to our home site. Meet CJ, the homeowner. Seventy-something, former coal miner, 5 foot and 2 inches with a smile that could melt the scowl off a Federal Reserve economist. One look at CJ, and I know this will be a great week for the kids - enhanced by four young grandchildren, three dogs, 10 cats, several kittens and two puppies. Now the bad news. Our college-student staff advisers are thoroughly committed to a repair plan that simply will not work. Why do I always seem to get these projects? Maybe I'm just meant to have them. My last two ASP trips, I had a battle over the issue of "doing it right," and I don't want another one this year. We'll see. We return to the center, and I write up my alternate plan. Eloquent. Logical. Compelling. Unassailable. It doesn't have a chance.

Monday: Great news. Our ASP site adviser is not only smart, she also listens. My arguments of lower cost, shorter time, higher quality and greater safety are heard and endorsed, even thought they have not yet secured official approval from their off-site supervisor - a mysterious, nameless figure who seems to loom large over them. (Reminds me of a few builders.) At the site, we completely remove the 9x14-foot kitchen lean-to. Built 40 years ago with no foundation support whatsoever. Floor joists on the dirt - how did it last that long? John, Derek, Allison, Lauren, Mike and Steve create a mountain of wreckage, despite the nonstop wasp attacks and spiders the size of Buicks. When we leave, CJ is beaming, unconcerned about his now-missing kitchen. He says he trusts us. His grandkids are thoroughly entertained.

Tuesday: Dig six holes for piers, 20x20x24 inches minimum depth. Eight-inch concrete pads. Six cinder blocks dry-stacked for each pier, tied together with concrete and rebar. Two holes -"nothin' but rock." Two more - "nothing but muck." Two are relatively easy. All seven of us drag our mud-covered bodies back to the center. We are given wide berth. Showers never felt so good.

Wednesday: The ASP center staff has never dealt with so many teams at once. Supplies are short. Staff spends so much time on trash hauling with just a pickup - as well as other jobs someone else should be doing - that there is little time for site or supply management. (Sounds familiar?) They are really trying, though. We decide to order our own load of lumber for both floor and walls direct from a local yard. When we stop by at the end of the day to check on the missing delivery, we hear that the load went to the wrong location - 4 miles from our site. Someone actually signed for it! The detached salesman, the jerky yard boss and the embarrassed driver get into a huge fight over whose fault it is. The yard boss suggests it's mine for giving lousy directions, but his own son walks up and speaks in my defense saying that my directions were perfect. All three guys stalk off in separated directions. The kid shakes his head in disgust, grabs a buddy and says they'll drive the 50-mile round trip to relocate the load on their own time. We insist on buying them dinner and give them each a $20.

Thursday: Lumber has arrived, so we have the crew remove the remaining sidewalls so we can tie into them with the new floor. Walls tomorrow - that's the fun stuff. But suddenly the truth becomes apparent, and it's bitter. There will be no floor- or wall-building this week. We discover that the girder holding up one entire side of the house is gone, busted in two places. Full of ants. Termites. The only option is to jack the whole end of the house, build new piers and replace the girder. Amazing, but there is almost no rot or bugs in the floor joists. That's a break. Everyone is frustrated, but you can't blame the staff because you couldn't see the damage until the kitchen was torn away. I explain to the kids that the jacking equipment will take time to locate, so we won't be finishing our job. They are disappointed. CJ just smiles and comforts them.

Friday: Staff agrees that all we can do is secure the site and temporarily cover the open sidewalls. The ASP supervisor arrives Monday and will devise the new plan for the next crew. Just as I'm thinking about how no one had been stung, the wasps launch one final attack. I am relieved that the only one to receive the pointed wrath of our aggressive friends was me.

We say some long, tearful goodbyes to CJ and the grandkids. If salt of the earth means anything, CJ's last name should be "Morton." And then this tough-as-a-steam-drill coal miner tells us he loves us and will never forget us. The girls promise him they'll come back to see him, so he wouldn't be able to forget. And I promise we'll make it happen. We spend Friday afternoon at another team's site and help them finish up a big project. It gives our kids some sense of completion. That helps.

Saturday: The drive back is long, but climbing a steep West Virginia hill, I can see all 17 vans at once, and I am nearly overwhelmed. We were builders this week - all 120 of us. No, we didn't do land deals or marketing plans, and our county has never heard the terms "building inspector" or "impact fees." Yet, we dealt with changing schedules, faulty plans, supply shortages, feuding suppliers and a bureaucracy that doesn't move quickly enough. More than anything else, we dealt with a homeowner who placed his entire trust in us. Even though faced with delays and disappointment, he was delighted. He showed a bunch of well-protected kids a slower, simpler way of life in a place that might as well have been on the other side of the world. And they learned a bit more about how to build a home - and how to build a life.


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