Ryan Chartrand

While their peers are slathering on coconut oil and soaking up the sun, some Cal Poly students would rather be laying on the elbow grease and rolling up their sleeves come spring break.

Sixteen members of PolyHabitat – the campus chapter of the international organization Habitat for Humanity – will be traveling to Tacoma, Wash. this spring break to get down and dirty as they help build homes for households in need of decent shelter.

Operating under the umbrella of Habitat for Humanity International and the supervision of the San Luis Obispo affiliate, PolyHabitat volunteers are Cal Poly students who choose to donate their time and manpower at Habitat build sites.

Volunteers spend most of their time in San Luis Obispo County, where they work alongside a local family and contractors to build a house for that particular family. PolyHabitat currently has about 25 active members, with about half going out at any given time to swing hammers and flick paintbrushes.

“I guess you could say we provide the labor pool for SLO Habitat for Humanity,” explained Amy Lake, architectural engineering senior and PolyHabitat treasurer. “They rely on us to provide an army of volunteers.”

Since the club’s beginnings in 2000, PolyHabitat has worked with the county Habitat organization to build three houses in Paso Robles and one in Cambria.

“PolyHabitat is just about making the community a better place,” said Ashley Russell, club president and biomedical engineering senior.

Lake said she started volunteering with PolyHabitat because she was interested in helping people who wanted to help themselves.

“Part of the draw to Habitat for Humanity is that you’re right alongside the people whose house it’s going to be,” she said. “Usually when you volunteer it’s a faceless kind of thing. With this, you get to see them – the family – and actually work with them to build their own home.”

The average San Luis Obispo Habitat house costs about $96,000 to build, plus any land costs. Houses are designed to be affordable for those families selected to receive one because they are sold with no profit margin and tied to a no-interest mortgage.

Families are chosen to receive a house based on their level of need, ability to repay the loan, and their desire to work with Habitat to build their own home.

“These are not just people on the streets, they’re also people just having a hard time getting a decent roof to put over their families’ heads,” Russell said. “I think Habitat for Humanity gives people something to look forward to and something to work for.”

San Luis Obispo currently has no active build sites, but Habitat is in the planning stages for a four-unit complex in Atascadero, with hopes to begin construction in November.

Come spring break, some students choose to travel and build as part of Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge, which is marketed as a positive alternative to the stereotypical diversions of a college spring break trip. Last year more than 9,000 students from across the nation spent their spring break putting up siding, laying bricks, sawing and hammering.

While past trips have taken students to Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Montana, this year’s trip will be to Washington state, where PolyHabitat volunteers will spend four days building alongside local families and students from other universities.

“The fact that you can stand back at the end of the week and see what you’ve accomplished opens your eyes to the possibilities of hope,” Russell said.

“It’s a chance to travel and to meet new people and at the same time get to do something worthwhile with your time,” Lake agreed.

The chapter minimizes trip costs by staying inside a local church during the break, and hopes to fundraise about $8,000 to cover the other travel expenses for the 16 volunteers going on this year’s trip.

Throughout the year, volunteers also help out at the organization’s ReStore locations in San Luis Obispo and Templeton. Dubbed as “urban recycling centers,” the ReStores are second-hand and surplus building collection centers that Habitat operates as fundraising tools. Building materials, including cabinets, hardware and doors, are donated to the centers and then resold for profit or kept for use in Habitat homes.

“PolyHabitat is for down-to-earth students who like to have a good time and build something worthwhile with their bare hands,” Russell said. “The fact that they’re willing to give up their spring break to help build communities says something about their character.”

PolyHabitat meets at 6:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of every month in building 3, room 206.

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