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Student volunteers build lasting legacy at ISU Habitat chapter

Habitat Hank Campbell

Sujit Johnston, a freshman at Illinois Wesleyan, left, and Sundae Nelson, back left, senior at Illinois State, get a miter saw lesson from Department of Technology professor emeritus Hank Campbell at the Habitat build site.

NORMAL—Last Saturday morning, like just about every Saturday since September, there was a flurry of activity inside the work-in-progress Habitat for Humanity home at 407 West Vernon Avenue.

On the front porch, a retired Illinois State technology professor showed a college student how to use a miter saw. Upstairs, an Illinois State alumna who will own the home painted her bedroom closet doors. Out back, Illinois State students teamed up with Illinois Wesleyan volunteers to paint the shed white.

APO students caulk

Emily Szymczak, left, and Amanda Bettenhausen from Alpha Phi Omega get to work on Saturday.

In the living room, Emily Szymczak and Amanda Bettenhausen from Illinois State’s Alpha Phi Omega (APO) service fraternity had their caulk guns at the ready. Szymczak has worked on three or four Habitat homes through APO—enough to get pretty good with a hammer and nails—but this was Bettenhausen’s first build. Both were eager to be part of the 19th local Habitat home built primarily by college volunteers.

“It’s very fulfilling to see the results of your work right away,” said Szymczak, a senior bilingual elementary education major.

The Vernon Avenue build is almost finished, becoming the latest successful joint project between Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan’s Habitat chapters and their affiliate, Habitat for Humanity of McLean County. Together, they’ve built at least one home in Bloomington-Normal each year since 1995, offering a unique service opportunity that gives students real-world skills and some very visible fruits of their labor.

Next up for Illinois State’s Habitat chapter is the Pounding the Pavement 5K/10K Run-Walk on April 14, where students will raise money for their next house. Fundraisers like that are key because the Illinois State chapter must raise $30,000 itself to sponsor a house, said chapter President Tassie Sotiropoulos.

Volunteers broke ground in September on the Vernon Avenue home, which was built on a donated lot. Every Saturday morning, the project directors (who have extensive construction expertise) work with a group of between 10 and 15 students. In the course of a year, more than 200 Illinois State students are involved with Habitat in some way, said Sotiropoulos, a senior human resources management major.

Habitat home on Vernon

The Habitat home under construction at 407 West Vernon Avenue in Normal.

The Habitat pros treat the students just like any other volunteer—as if they don’t know much about construction but are willing to learn. Most are pretty green, but they’ll occasionally get a construction management major or a second or third-year repeat volunteer, said Habitat construction manager Bill Waller. (Habitat always has someone with Waller’s level of expertise on site at student-built homes like the one on Vernon Avenue.)

On the Vernon site, students are also working on what’s expected to be the first LEED-certified “platinum” home in downstate Illinois, denoting super-high energy and resource efficiency and healthy building materials, said Waller. That will keep the homeowner’s energy costs low, fulfilling Habitat’s mantra of building “simple, decent, affordable homes,” Waller said.

“Affordable housing needs to efficient,” he said.

The home will cost around $82,000 altogether, including materials donated from a long list of businesses.

Jessica Stewart paints

Illinois State alumna Jessica Stewart puts “sweat equity” into her new Habitat home.

It will soon be home sweet home for Jessica Stewart ’06, M.S.W. ’12, and her two children. They now live with Stewart’s father and two other relatives in a crowded house, so they’re excited to get their own space.

Stewart has been putting the required “sweat equity” into the home every Saturday with the other volunteers, and she’s been blown away by the Illinois State students.

“I’m impressed with the number of students who show up, how excited they are, how hard they actually work. It’s overwhelming,” said Stewart, a foster care team supervisor at a Bloomington social services agency.

Habitat will ceremonially hand over the house keys to Stewart on April 20. Sotiropoulos has worked on Habitat homes for each of the past four years, and that final day is always an unforgettable moment.

“Being able to hand the keys to the family, to see how they’re excited to start the next chapter in their lives, it just brings goosebumps to my arms,” she said. “It’s an awesome experience.”

With no real home improvement experience, Sotiropoulos joined Habitat to help alleviate local poverty. She was eager to make a difference beyond campus in the greater Bloomington-Normal area.

“It’s a really cool opportunity because you can go back and see those houses and see the impact we’ve made, not only at ISU, but out in the community,” Sotiropoulos said.

On Saturday, project manager Gary Klass, also an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Government, was keeping students busy. Klass has worked on all 19 of the student-built Habitat homes, joined on almost all of them by project director Department of Technology professor emeritus Hank Campbell, a key figure in the long partnership between Habitat McLean County and the two collegiate chapters.

Campbell, who on Saturday was helping students learn how to use that miter saw on the porch, said service projects like these raise the stature of the University in the community.

“This is part of their civic engagement,” Campbell said.

Check out the ISU Habitat chapter’s Facebook page for more information about the April 14 fundraiser.

Ryan Denham can be reached at