Helping out south of border

By Greg Gelpi

Taking a vacation from his hectic work schedule as the information technology manager of The Doctor's Office LLP, Keith Schuler recently spent a week in Vera Cruz, Mexico. But he wasn't on vacation.

The Doctor's Office, a group of seven health-care providers, helped fund Schuler's trip, part of the President Jimmy Carter Work Project, to help build 75 houses through Habitat for Humanity.

From around 7 in the morning to sometimes as late as 7 at night, he and a team of 35 volunteers built the 600-square-foot house.

"You almost need a vacation from your vacation," Schuler, 41, said.

Although most of the volunteers have returned home, electrical and plumbing project volunteers remain, but the families should be able to move into their new houses before Christmas, Schuler said.

About 2,000 volunteers worked to build 75 houses. Schuler served as a house leader, coordinating the efforts of an international contingent, although he didn't let language get in the way.

Other challenges were the heat and constructing the single-family homes using materials and designs unfamiliar to Schuler. The two-bedroom homes were built with concrete blocks, which were more like bricks, he said. Multiple homes were built on the same slab to form small communities.

Schuler said he received a greater appreciation of all that he has.

"You kind of take an inventory of what you have and don't have," he said, explaining that the experience is "rewarding."

Trading in his tools as the "one-man IT staff," Schuler said he used his experiences through the Boy Scouts of America as an Eagle Scout and Scout volunteer, as well as his fair share of watching "This Old House," to learn the tools and trade of construction.

Schuler said his experience with Boy Scouts introduced him to volunteering and performing projects to give back to the community and he became involved with the Atlanta chapter of Habitat more than two years ago.

His passion for volunteering is shared by his family. The husband and father of three said his children have expressed an eagerness to work with Habitat for Humanity as well when they are old enough.

Meeting many of the volunteers for the first time at the airport before departing for Vera Cruz, Schuler said he made friendships that he hopes to keep. The volunteers stayed in hotels and recovered from the day's labor by plotting ways to tackle the next day's work.

Schuler also hopes to remain in touch with the family whose house he helped build. He said that he and his family will send Christmas and birthday cards to their new friends in Mexico.

Schuler would like to return to Mexico to see if the area "turns into a neighborhood, rather than just buildings."

Walking through the house with the family who will live there, Schuler said he showed them how to turn it into a home by marking the heights of children on door frames.

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