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Color Guard : 8th-Grade Painting Crew Skips Usual Lessons to Brush Up on Empathy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s hard to tell who benefited most from the painting party at John Novak’s Newhall home this week.

True, the 76-year-old Novak moved one step closer to having a home after his was destroyed in the Northridge earthquake.

But it was the students from Sierra Canyon Middle School in Chatsworth who seemed to be getting the better end of the deal. Faces speckled with paint, tresses wrapped in kerchiefs, the eighth-graders attacked their part of the home construction project with vehemence.

“We understand what he’s feeling,” said Renee Delgado, 13, pausing for breath after vigorously pushing a long paint roller beneath the bedroom windowsill.

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Renee is one of 31 students who spent the better part of Thursday working on the Habitat for Humanity project.

They could sympathize with Novak because many suffered severe damage in their own homes in the 1994 temblor. Renee’s family moved back to their Woodland Hills home just this week. Other students say work on their homes won’t be finished for some time.

“They have a lot of experience with moving out of a home that has been destroyed . . . that has been taken away from them,” said teacher Shelley Deutsch.

The students offered to participate in the Habitat project, the group’s first complete reconstruction project in Santa Clarita, after reading a newspaper story appealing for volunteers.

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Novak’s home was declared uninhabitable after the quake, and emergency housing assistance was not enough to rebuild. He had no money or family to fall back on. Even if he had sold his property, Novak would have had little to live on after he paid demolition costs, a Habitat official said.

The home-building group, whose most famous volunteer is former President Jimmy Carter, razed Novak’s house and is building a new one. Habitat hopes to finish it by Thanksgiving.

Habitat normally calls on adults to work on its building projects. But John Jasso, the project’s construction superintendent, said the organization permitted the class to help to give the children a sense of how difficult it can be for low-income people struck by misfortune.

Once permitted to help, the students and their instructors got organized. They broke into groups named for hardware: hammers, who painted in white, were dispatched to a bedroom. Pliers, who painted in pale pink, took the living room. Measuring tapes, who painted in gray, took the garage.

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Varying shades of paint dotted most faces. There had been crossover.

Soon the entire 1,150-square-foot home was filled with brushes, rollers, buckets. Clear plastic sheeting gradually became smeared with white, pink and gray. Visitors tried to keep their shoes out of the path of overloaded brushes.

“It gives you a good feeling to be helping this guy who could have been homeless,” said Nicole Garrett, 14, of Sherman Oaks, gray streaks on her forehead.

“We’re not as bad as people think,” said her classmate Adam Schwem, speaking for the post-Generation X.

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Taking time to paint did take the students away from their studies. But Deutsch said it was worth it. Some things, she said, can’t be learned behind a desk. A knot of students, rollers at the ready, nodded as she explained.

“Knowing that we helped a 76-year-old man is more important than knowing the value of pi,” Renee said. Even so, she reeled off the key number in geometry, just to prove it.


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