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Work begins on Habitat for Humanity's 51-home subdivision

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The airplane mechanic with the circular saw stuck the spinning blade into the plywood: YeeeeRRRRRnnnyaa!

He ran the saw along a blue, chalk-mark line. He picked it up, letting the saw blade spin, and put it back into the wood where the corner of a window will one day be.

"Hey Adams," somebody said. "Can I use that extension cord when you're done?"

Gary Adams, a general manager of engine maintenance at Delta Airlines, was one of 120 Delta employees who were building houses in Jonesboro on Tuesday. In the airline's fifth, annual "blitz build," the Delta people swarmed over a site on Iron Gate Boulevard, sawing and pounding together the walls of four houses, in what will be a subdivision of 51 Habitat for Humanity homes.

The "build," as Southern Crescent Habitat officials like to call it, is the local branch's largest ever, and each house will also be built with certified, environmentally friendly building materials and techniques.

The project, called "The Avery," is being done in collaboration with the Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, with funding from the Woodruff Foundation, and the support of long-time corporate partners, like Delta. The 51 homes are being constructed in a circle, around a finger of granite, with a lot of trees left standing, offering shade. A map, posted by the road, shows where all the houses will eventually go, and the cleared, bare-dirt spaces show where the four houses will be built by Delta volunteers, in the next three weeks.

Adams, setting down the saw on Tuesday, said he volunteered to help with the three weeks of construction because he enjoys this work. Nearby, holding a blue hammer and wearing a white hard hat, flight statistician Laura Lunsford, said she volunteered because she believes in the mission of Habitat for Humanity.

"I believe it's a good cause," she said. "The people that need these houses really worked hard for them."

In order to apply for a Habitat house, families have to pass a rigorous screening process. Applicants have to take 50 hours of homeowner education classes, give 250 hours of "sweat equity," and prove they're financially and "motivationally" a good applicant, even though they don't qualify for traditional loans and mortgages.

According to Habitat statistics, families in Habitat homes have children with increased likelihood of graduating from high school, decreased likelihood of delinquency and unwanted pregnancy. Steve Teske, chairman of the Southern Crescent Habitat board, said there's a culture of ownership, taken on by the applicants, and a strong sense of civic responsibility.

"There's just something about families being in a home they can call their home -- that is their home," Teske said.

He told the volunteering Delta employees he sees the same civic commitment and sense of ownership in their company. "I remember y'all going through bankruptcy," Teske said. "And even then, when you were in the valley, you gave. And now, when you're climbing back up that mountain, you're still giving."

Cara Welch, chief development officer for the local Habitat, said Delta has been the top sponsor. With a project as large as the development off Iron Gate Boulevard, organizers wanted a big group to get the construction started. A lot of volunteers will help with the building before the last house is erected at the end of 2009, or the beginning of 2010.

In October, Clayton County high school students are scheduled to build a house. The Habitat for Humanity build is in the final stages of a grant application, which could include volunteers to build 10 houses, Welch said.

"It is only fitting, though," Teske said, "that we kick it off with Delta employees. Delta has been one of the most significant contributors."

Some of the volunteers, wearing hard-hats and holding hammers on Tuesday, had never worked on a house before. Dennis Duncan, a Henry County man who has worked as a contractor, showed a half dozen Delta people how to nail plywood to two-by-four studs. He showed them how to hammer the two-penny nails along the chalk line, and then stepped back and let the brand new Habitat helpers hammer away.

Others, working on the site, have clearly done this before. Denny Spaulding was directing a sizable squad of volunteers, standing in the middle of the 1,700-square-feet, concrete pad, waving and pointing. This is Spaulding's 76th Habitat "build."

"I used to do construction in Chicago," Spaulding said. "So I got to my first build, and the guy in charge saw I knew what I was doing, and he said, 'Now you're in charge of this house. You're the construction director.' I said, 'I don't want to.' He said, 'It's too late.' I do 100 houses, before I'm done."