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Building hope on the bayou

Finding fulfillment amid hurricanes' ruin

By John Helton
CNN

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CNN.com producer John Helton helps set a truss on a Habitat for Humanity home in Louisiana.

BEHIND THE SCENES

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Rebuilding: Vital signs
• Gallery: Landmarks over time
• Storm & Flood: Making history
• I-Report: Share your photos

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Behind the Scenes

GRAY, Louisiana (CNN) -- I wasn't ready to leave -- there was still work left to do.

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, I did like millions of others and sent a donation to a relief fund.

And I did like 32,000 other people did and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity's Operation Home Delivery, which built sections of homes around the country, then shipped them to the Gulf Coast to be assembled there.

I had done carpentry work while I was going to school and have worked on several Habitat houses around Atlanta. I like to build stuff.

The relief work along the Gulf Coast gave me an opportunity to put my muscle where my mouth is.

So on a chilly, muddy Monday morning in late January, I gathered in a circle with 18 other volunteers, some who had flown or driven from as far away as New York, California or Minnesota, to be assigned tasks building a subdivision in the small community of Gray, Louisiana, between Thibodaux and Houma.

Three houses had been started by the previous week's group. We would have worked on those and framed four others by the end of the week.

Bill Moriarity, Habitat's coordinator on this and a couple smaller projects in Louisiana, saw me and my video camera and asked, "Are you here to work or to do that?"

I told him I was there to work. But I wanted to tell this story, too. And during the week I tried to do both.

No one asked about my skills, so I was assigned to be the ground man on one of the houses, handing up plywood, nails and whatever else was needed by the crew putting down decking on the roof.

That was OK -- it left time for shooting some video in between my hoisting tasks.

As I slogged through the sticky but slippery mud, hay put down to cover the ground stuck to my boots, making them look like muddy fuzzy slippers.

In the afternoon, the roof crew didn't need anything from the ground so I evolved from the mud people and joined the roofers to nail things down.

As the week went on, we refined things, and the build began to resemble any other job site I had worked on. Except for a lot less profanity -- Habitat is a faith-based organization.

It still happened -- the first reaction to a hammered thumb or a bumped head is hard to suppress. But normally it was muffled and followed by quick glances around to see if anyone was offended, then an apology just in case anyone was.

The smart-alecky camaraderie that construction crews seem to effect also emerged after a couple days.

During breaks or while we were waiting on material, I would shoot video of other people working. I interviewed a couple of the future residents who were putting their 200 hours of "sweat equity" into their homes.

By Thursday, we were a tight crew. We had learned each other's capabilities or limitations, and how to work with each other.

On Thursday afternoon, the thought of shooting video never crossed my mind as we pushed to finish the plywood decking on the roof on our second house.

Delvin Portier, the construction superintendent on the site, was impressed on how much progress we made that day.

"Y'all got a lot done," he said.

"We kicked ass," I said.

"Yeah you did," he said.

Kim Smith, a former University of North Carolina golfer from Chicago, slapped hands with me as she passed by. Perfect.

We worked past the calls for breaks and lunch. It seemed like it would take five or 10 minutes for the hammering or sawing to go silent during our breaks.

Jim Meyers, who calls himself "retired" at 38 after selling the software company he co-founded in the 1990s, and I weren't in the group picture because we wanted to finish up nailing off the last rafter on the roof before getting down.

They later Photoshopped us into the picture, our disembodied heads floating among the back row of volunteers.

"It makes it look like you guys died during construction," said Scott Derenger, a stand-up comic from Chicago who entertained troops in Iraq with a couple other comics last year.

In the evenings, we gathered in the modular home in which the men in the group were staying. Because there were more men than women, we got the house because it had more beds. The women slept in two RVs and a closed-in barn.

Except for early Thursday morning when a tornado warning chased them through a driving rain and lightning into the house.

We had peaked on Thursday. We were moving slower on Friday. I run three miles a day three or four times a week and play basketball two or three times a week but my legs started cramping on Thursday afternoon and continued into Friday.

On Friday afternoon, some of the volunteers left to make flights home. The rest left Saturday morning. Some lingered in the kitchen and dining room Saturday morning, making sure we had each other's e-mail addresses and told each other how much we enjoyed the week.

In the days that followed, I used those e-mail addresses to ask some of my co-workers that week why they volunteered and what they felt after the week was over.

John Yutz, who drove down from his farm in Missouri, wrote that he had a "trust problem" when it came to sending money to strangers.

"I felt that Habitat For Humanity is the only organization that can help those who are truly willing to help themselves," he wrote.

I told him that the week was one of the most fulfilling in my life. He agreed.

"I felt good about the project when we left, and I wonder if this is a gift to (the future homeowners) or a gift to us. I have to say that in this case everyone wins."

Meyers called the experience "powerful" and said it let him see for himself how well the area was recovering from the hurricanes.

"In addition to feeling like I was helping in a meaningful, efficient, and persistent manner, I was also able to get some firsthand input from the local residents about the state of the recovery," he said. "I found it especially gratifying that almost all of the feedback that I got from locals regarding the (Habitat) efforts was positive."

I forgot to dump the nails out of the nailbag on my toolbelt as I left the site on Friday. That's OK -- I'm sure I'll use them when I go back.

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