Elon Physical Plant offers helping hand to Habitat for Humanity

In a year when volunteering efforts have been hampered by COVID-19 and social distancing requirements, Elon Physical Plant has helped Habitat for Humanity continue to provide affordable homes to Alamance County families in need.

Elon Physical Plant staff use their talents every day to make sure the university runs smoothly, but once a month they use their expertise to step out into the community and make a difference off campus.

About a half dozen Physical Plant carpenters, painters and key specialists spent a recent January morning constructing a home for a local family in need with Habitat for Humanity of Alamance County. Their efforts are part of a continuing initiative that launched in early 2020. Once a month – every third Thursday – a small team of Physical Plant staff works together to build a home in Apple Tree Village, an affordable housing community in Burlington, North Carolina.

Over the past year, the team has worked on a number of houses in Apple Tree Village, which includes more than 10 Habitat homes. The volunteering opportunities allow staff, sometimes working alongside the families who will live in the homes, to bond while using their skills for a good cause. In their most recent visit, Physical Plant volunteers spent a cold morning installing siding on one of the homes, which they have helped build from the ground up.

“It’s really rewarding because when you come out here when it first starts, there’s nothing but grass and gravel, then you get the foundation poured and every time we come back, there’s a new piece to the puzzle, and you realize that this is somewhere that someone is going to live,” said Director of Building Trades Tim Dengler. “It builds that character of that home, and then it goes from just a structure to a place that they’re going to call home forever.”

Physical Plant staff recently installed siding on a home during a Habitat for Humanity build in January.

Dengler organized the monthly Physical Plant project with the help of Assistant Director of the Kernodle Center Sarah Williams and Associate Executive Director of Habitat Cathy Lamb in January 2020. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Physical Plant staff have been the only group to regularly volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of Alamance County over the past year, often working under the direction of Habitat construction manager James Hunter, who welcomes the help.

“This same crew from Elon has come several times, and they actually helped us set the trusses and get the roof dried in all in one day,” Hunter said. “They’re awesome. I don’t know what we’d do without Elon.”

The partnership between Elon and Habitat for Humanity has spanned across decades. The Elon Habitat for Humanity campus chapter formed during the 1988-89 academic year, becoming one of the earliest chapters to be charted by the national organization. The chapter, which was a first step toward what would later become Elon Volunteers!, strives to raise awareness of housing insecurity and work toward providing affordable housing in Alamance County. Since the chapter’s inception, volunteers have completed more than two dozen homes in Alamance County. It’s a partnership Lamb is happy to see continue, despite the struggles of the past year.

“Early in 2020 we were excited to have Elon Physical Plant commit to serve with us on a monthly basis, never dreaming that they would become our only regular volunteer group due to the pandemic,” Lamb said. “They have literally kept our houses going with their monthly teams to give our Core Crew a boost. These folks are a joy to have on the job site and their familiarity with construction is an added bonus. We are most grateful to Elon University for encouraging and facilitating service by faculty and staff in addition to students.”

Elon Physical Plant staff nail siding onto a Habitat home during a recent build.

Elon and Habitat for Humanity strengthened their partnership in 2020 by adding a new volunteer opportunity for Elon employees. The Elon Volunteer Program has been expanded to include Habitat for Humanity as an additional partner with which staff and faculty can use volunteer hours.

“The Physical Plant’s Habitat for Humanity monthly build days are great opportunities for our skilled staff to offer a helping hand to others in our community who are striving to improve their lives,” said Assistant Vice President of Physical Plant Tom Flood. “We are thankful that the university provides these volunteer hours for our staff so they can do this work and support our diversity, equity and inclusion goals.”

For Dengler, the chance to work with fellow Physical Plant staff to make a real difference in Alamance County leaves him looking forward to returning to the job site every month.

“It’s really important that we show that we aren’t just based on campus,” Dengler said. “We’re willing to bring the community into our community and show that we’re willing to give back and use our talents to help lift up the rest of the community.”