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Building Hope, One House at a Time

11/1/2014

Margaret Gabriel

Father Jeffrey Estacio, pastor of Good Shepherd Chapel in Whitley City, Ky., and a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Council 12774 in Lexington, blesses a new house built by Knights of Columbus and the Nebraska-based Appalachian Construction Crew, Inc. (photo by Patrick Murphy-Racey)

The two lanes of Highway 896 in McCreary County, Ky., lead deep into the Daniel Boone National Forest. At times, the tree canopy is so dense that the sunshine on a bright morning in mid-June only dapples the roadway. Past a curve, the sheltering branches clear and the road widens to reveal a half-dozen cars and trucks parked on the shoulder. A hand-painted sign affixed to a tree trunk reads “2950.”

The sign marks a construction site in Parkers Lake, Ky., where Knights of Columbus have gathered to build a house for Donna Ridenour, her mother, and her two children.

Ridenour is grateful for the features of her new home that most people take for granted. Indeed, just the mention of running water brings a wide smile to Ridenour’s face. For the better part of a year, she carried water for cooking and drinking from her mother’s house to her trailer. She and her children — James, 7, and Keristin, 6 — bathed at her sister’s home, but now the kids are excited about the bathroom in their new home. They call the bathtub a “hot tub,” Ridenour said, “because it’s so big!”

The family is the 15th to receive a new house through the collaborative efforts of Father Vincent S. Sikora Council 7992 in Burke, Va., the Church of the Nativity, also in Burke, and the Appalachian Construction Crew Inc., a non-profit organization based in Bellevue, Neb., and launched in 1988.

“Our partnership began in 2001 when the Burke council stepped in to help with volunteers. It soon turned into a major council initiative to keep the Crew afloat financially so that this incredibly important mission could continue,” explained Bob Corsi, a member of Council 7992, who had previously worked with the Nebraska group and who introduced the home-building program to the council.

“The Crew was building one home per year but was on the brink of shutting down,” he said. “We didn’t want that to happen.”

Since then, a dynamic partnership has developed. The council and parish in Burke raise and donate 75 percent of the necessary funds and volunteer manpower each year, while the Nebraska Crew, under the direction of George Ziska, coordinates each mission project with Good Shepherd Chapel in Whitley City, Ky.

Today, building a home for a family in McCreary County has become the council’s signature work, according to Grand Knight Mark Sawyer.

“As men, we’re called to use our time, treasure and talent,” said Sawyer. “This project brings all of those things together. Every year, our goal is to change a family’s life forever.”

‘BRINGING CHRIST’S LIGHT’

Located about 100 miles south of Lexington on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, McCreary County is one of the poorest counties in one of the nation’s poorest states. The extractive industries of coal mining and timber largely define the county’s economy, and the boom-bust tendencies of those industries contribute to both high unemployment and a low per-capita income.

Harry Wallace, a member of Good Shepherd Chapel — the only Catholic parish in McCreary County — links residents with construction workers willing to assist them. He collects and screens applications that are taken at Good Shepherd, the local library and the McCreary County Christian Center.

“We’re not looking for someone who is just living off the system,” Wallace said.

He explained that families’ very low incomes prevent them from obtaining conventional mortgages. Many work hard to improve their situations but often do not have the tools they need to make progress.

Applicants are asked to provide references so that Wallace is able to get a complete picture of a family’s efforts. Brenda Campbell, the manager of the Christian Appalachian Project’s Child and Family Development Center in McCreary County, was one of the references that Ridenour listed on her application.

“Donna works hard to better her children’s lives,” Campbell explained. “A new house, with running water, will give her the extra boost she needs. A warm home will turn life around for James and Keristin.”

Ridenour, whose family was selected from among dozens who have submitted applications over the years, was grateful to have Campbell as an advocate. “She was really kickin’ for us,” Ridenour said.

In December 2013, Ridenour was notified that she had been selected to receive the new house. Valued at $50,000, it would be fitted with appliances, furniture, linens — even toys and school supplies for the children. Ridenour was initially skeptical when she received the call from a member of the selection committee, thinking that it was a practical joke. Just a few minutes later, though, her phone rang again and Wallace assured her that her days of living in a rented trailer without electricity or running water were over.

Ridenour’s home is typical of the previous construction projects that Ziska and Corsi’s crews have undertaken annually for the last 14 years. Since recipients live in such poverty, their houses or trailers do not receive routine maintenance and simply fall into disrepair. Families often live with leaky roofs, rotting floors and broken windows, and it is not uncommon for homes to be heated by a coal or wood stove. As a result, it is more cost-effective to construct a new house than to provide the repairs needed to make a house safe and livable.

The knowledge that the construction project will dramatically improve the living conditions of recipient families motivates the entire crew, not just during the days of the build, but also during the months when the crew is being assembled and money is being raised for construction.

To begin a homebuilding project, Corsi addresses Nativity parishioners after every Mass one weekend in January, describing the project and the living conditions of the recipient families. In 2014, parishioners donated a record $52,000 while Ziska’s efforts in Nebraska raised $13,000.

While cash donations are collected, 40 parish families at Nativity collect new and gently used household items.

“The project couldn’t be done without all the Knights of the council and the people of the Church of the Nativity,” Sawyer said. “They’re really committed to bringing Christ’s light.”

HARD WORK AND GRATITUDE

The new homeowner is required to own the land on which a house is to be constructed. Ridenour’s home in Parkers Lake was built on property where her mother, Gladys Head, has lived for 50 years. To allow room for new construction, Head watched as a local crew assembled by Wallace, with help from Ridenour’s extended family, tore down her old house. Families are asked to provide as much “sweat equity” as they are able, based on their ability and expertise.

That work was completed in February, as Head crowded into the trailer with her daughter and grandchildren.

As with past projects, construction of the Parkers Lake house took place in two phases. From June 6-11 the exterior structure of the 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bathroom home was raised. The following week, a finishing crew completed the interior work, with a family move-in date set for June 20.

On Friday, June 6, the volunteer crew of 27 people — including 18 Knights from Virginia, Maryland, Colorado and Nebraska — began by building the wall frames for the house and front porch. Trusses were raised the next day, with work on the roof, porch, deck and siding continuing into Sunday (with a break for Mass and brunch). Local contractors installed the electrical wiring and plumbing, which passed inspection on Monday just as the roofing and insulation were nearing completion. By the time the drywall and siding work were wrapped up on Tuesday, the house looked like a home.

While cutting pieces of siding, Dave Perales, a member of Council 7992, explained that he uses the project as a way to teach his children about the importance of giving back.

“I joined the Knights of Columbus so I could come and do this,” he said. “The first time, it’s overwhelming, but after that it’s cool to see what can be done in a few days.”

After finishing for the day on Tuesday afternoon, the crew gathered with the family for a traditional house blessing. Father Jeffrey Estacio, pastor of Good Shepherd Chapel and a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Council 12774 in Lexington, Ky., asked God’s blessing on the family and the crew, sprinkled the house with holy water, and prayed that the home would be filled with peace and prosperity. At the conclusion of the rite, a furious summer storm stirred up, and everyone hurried to their cars to travel to St. Joseph Inn, a parish facility, for a multi-course dinner.

After cheesecake and coffee, Ben White, the youngest crew member, presented keys to Ridenour and Head, the proud co-owners of the new house. White worked on the build alongside his father, Mark, a member of Columban Council 6192 in Bellevue, Neb., and his grandfather, Don. The presentation of the keys makes for one of the most emotional moments of the week for every build, and the dedication of the Ridenour’s home was no different.

“We are just so happy,” said Gladys Head, unable to contain her tears.

Corsi pointed out that the crew has several common threads in addition to a desire to help those in need. “The principles of the Knights — charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism — are binding elements. They are all in play,” he said.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life,” Corsi added. “Working on these houses is my way of giving back.”

After the finishing crew of five Knights and Ziska put the final touches on the house the following week, Ridenour and her family were able to move in ahead of schedule on June 18.

Four months later, with the autumn leaves beginning to turn, Ridenour remains grateful for the improved life for her and her mother — and especially for her children.

“They love it, especially having their own bedrooms,” she said. “They’re getting better grades in school and they like to have their friends over now. We’re all really proud!”

MARGARET GABRIEL is a freelance writer who lives in Lexington, Ky.