Volunteers' House Party : Students Use Spring Break to Repair Quake-Damaged Home


For nearly 40 years it's been Ruth Cleveland's home, a modest house on a quiet street where she and her husband settled after the war to raise their daughter.

It's been the site of weddings and wakes and even served as a location in Tim Burton's big-screen ode to suburbia, "Edward Scissorhands." It's been, in Cleveland's words, "an active house," one that's become a bit more active in recent days.

Last week the three-bedroom home began welcoming the first of more than 100 college students from across the country, drawn here not for the alcohol-soaked bacchanal of spring break, but to rebuild Cleveland's earthquake-damaged house.

"It's about helping families and helping people," said Lisa Mitchell, 20, one of 16 University of South Dakota students working in a quake repair program sponsored by Habitat for Humanity.

Last week, two dozen men and women from Minnesota's Concordia College chipped off the fractured stucco around the single-story house. This week, the USD group arrived to pick up where they left off.

It's a long way from that cold January day two years ago when the Northridge earthquake shattered windows, toppled furniture and splintered Cleveland's walls and ceiling with cracks.

"You couldn't walk through it," she recalled. "You had to use a shovel."

The building was still habitable but far from comfortable. She lived without heat for more than a year.

The long-overdue repairs are part of Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge, a 7-year-old program that puts student volunteers to work building and repairing homes across the country, explained Helena Delu, who oversees the organization's quake recovery effort in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. For six weeks between February and April, students from six colleges will visit Southern California to rebuild what nature destroyed. Other volunteers continue the rebuilding effort the rest of the year.

Without quake insurance and with an estimated $35,000 in damages, Cleveland turned to the nonprofit group for help many months ago. According to Delu, Habitat volunteers are providing the labor in conjunction with the city's Housing Department, which will pay for the materials.

Jennifer Johnson, a 20-year-old history and social work major, said the collegiate program may help the needy, but it also inspires the volunteers.

"It emphasizes the positives about human nature," she said. "It's refreshing for kids our age to experience that. We tend to have such a pessimistic attitude about the world."

Daniel Weigel agrees. The 25-year-old psychology doctoral student spent last year's vacation building a home in Salt Lake City with Habitat volunteers and says the work challenges the stereotype of spring break.

"It's very rewarding knowing that we're trying to make a dent in poverty and homelessness," he said. "You turn on MTV and see everyone seven-eighths naked and drinking beer."

For many of the students, the trip is their first to California and their first exposure to the headache and heartache caused by earthquakes. They are familiar with tornadoes, and Johnson recalled how a twister destroyed houses across the street while sparing her own. Even so, she marveled at how a quake, unlike a tornado, could strike with such force without warning.

"I can't fathom that at all," she said.

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