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BUILDING DREAMS : Teen-Agers Lend Helping Hand So the Needy Can Own Homes

September 14, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM and HENRY DIROCCO | Needham is a Times Staff Writer

Sunlight flooded the skeletal frame of the house as the four Orange County teen-agers a thousand miles from home tried desperately not to drop the six-foot-long piece of drywall they were holding above their heads.

Finally, another youth manhandled a beam into place to prop up the drywall. But then came the to-and-froing, jostling the material this way and that before finally getting it in place, another part of what would eventually be a ceiling.

Muscles aching, faces bathed in sweat, it was time for another chore. How about jumping into the waist-high ditch outside the house and helping to shovel out some more dirt? Grabbing shovels, off they went, disappearing one by one into the ditch.

For some folks summer vacation meant palm trees, exotic shores and relaxing days in a beach chair with a good book. But for eight teen-age volunteers from the First Christian Church of Orange, it meant a journey north to build houses for people who otherwise couldn't afford them.

The students, all in high school or just graduated, belong to the church's Christian Youth Fellowship. Each summer the group picks a different project and hits the road. One year, they helped build a house in Yuma; another time they rehabilitated buildings on an Indian reservation in Washington.

This year the goal was housing again, and the site was Seattle.

The eight teen-agers and four adults stayed overnight in Disciples of Christ churches en route to Seattle, pitching sleeping bags on basement floors from Bakersfield to Grants Pass, Ore. Once settled in the Seattle area, the group spent six days helping to build three houses as volunteers for a program known as Habitat for Humanity International.

The organization is a nonprofit, ecumenical housing project that uses donations and volunteer workers to build affordable housing for needy families. Since its founding in 1976, Habitat has built more than 5,000 homes worldwide. Its most prominent member has been former President Jimmy Carter, a board member who leads work camps each year in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Although there is a Habitat affiliate in Orange County, it is working out final details of its initial construction projects and has not yet started building or rehabilitating structures, according to Ken Karlstead, chairman of the board of directors of the local affiliate. But for the teen-agers who went to Seattle, traveling out of the Southern California area was an important part of the summer experience, said Mike Post, a recent graduate of Orange High School who is now a freshman at Chapman College.

"You leave all of your troubles and worries behind you," said Post, who, unlike most of the students, had been on these volunteer expeditions before. "When you are away from home . . . you are down to the basics. You are open to yourself."

Kyle Prenzlow, a senior at El Modena High School in Orange who has a flair for construction and woodworking and became an informal tutor to the other volunteers, said: "You are a family for 13 days. You are forced to deal with all of the negative and positive issues on the trip, and you grow. It's a place where you can be yourself and also cut loose."

Despite the presence of the adults, the students themselves made many of the decisions on who would do what jobs and which sights would be seen during their time off. The teen-agers also had a major voice in choosing the Seattle site, figuring the temperate weather would mean they could get more work done than in other possible locations such as Bakersfield or Arizona.

"The kids have a hand in the decision-making for the trip, and parents and students ultimately make the final choice (together)," said Dan Oliver, associate pastor at First Christian Church and the staff director for the event.

For Prenzlow, a barrel-chested youth with close-cropped hair, the most rewarding aspect of the trip was helping others. "You need the work part to have a real balance," he said, explaining why the Christian Youth Fellowship group chooses service projects over frolic for summer trips. "We can all do something. We all have gifts we can give. You can always use your talents for something helpful. The trip wouldn't be the same without the work part. We were just one small group. If there were lots of small groups, we could accomplish a lot."

Oliver said the trip gave the youths a firsthand look at how the other half lives, "finding out people's needs in the world other than just reading about it or hearing others speak about it. It was a way to meet people and work with them as a community and get some good done," as well as to provide the church group "with some real tangible types of experience," he added.

Bob Stone, 35, was overjoyed to see the Orange County group arrive. Stone acted essentially as a construction foreman for two of the houses the volunteers helped build.

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