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Volunteer Builds on His Habitat for Humanity Work

PROFILE | ELDEN SANDY

July 04, 2005|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

These are supposed to be the golden years, when the days poke along at a leisurely pace and the toughest task involves putting bait on a fishing hook.

So why, at age 64, is Elden Sandy working so hard?

It's partly because he has worked hard all his life as an electronic engineer at the Point Mugu Navy base in Ventura County. But it's also because the Camarillo resident is pushed by his faith, driven by a belief that he should be of service to others.

Service in his case meant building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Tall and lean, with an indomitable work ethic, Sandy rose to the level of construction coordinator for the nonprofit home builder -- essentially remaking himself as a general contractor and small-scale developer.

And now, after spending the better part of a decade as one of Habitat's most passionate volunteers, Sandy and his wife, Beatrice, are scheduled to fly soon to Papua New Guinea -- not for vacation but to teach at a school for the children of Christian missionaries.

He will leave a legacy of sweat-equity home building unsurpassed in Ventura County, having participated in or overseen the construction of 31 houses for families that otherwise would not own homes.

"It's not about me," said Sandy, deflecting credit in a way that friends and fellow Habitat volunteers say is typical.

"I could not be happier about having been part of this effort because of the awesome difference it made in the lives of so many families," he said. "I believe we need to be sharing everything we have and everything we know."

Sandy wasn't always involved in this kind of endeavor. The father of three adult children, he worked 32 years as a civilian engineer for the Navy, first in Corona and then at Point Mugu. With retirement in sight, he began looking in 1996 for ways to keep busy. He came across Habitat for Humanity in a booklet listing charitable activities.

"I guess I was a little bit scared by the prospect of not having anything to do," he said. "I've been a workaholic all of my life. I'm not the sort of person who's going to sit by a stream with a fishing pole in my hand."

He put a hammer in his hand instead. With no construction experience, he worked with other volunteers to help build his first home in Camarillo. By the time it was done, he had decided he would retire early and start building houses full time for Habitat.

Annette Houchin, executive director of Habitat's Ventura County chapter, said it was one of the best things ever to happen to the organization. Habitat has built 37 homes countywide, and the group relies on hundreds of volunteers to get the job done.

But few have matched Sandy's commitment and drive.

"For the last [nine] years, Elden lived, ate and breathed Habitat," Houchin said. "His presence will definitely be missed."

For most of his time with Habitat, Sandy has been in charge of the group's most ambitious project to date. He has overseen construction of a 22-unit subdivision in the farm town of Piru, bringing to life a vibrant, working-class neighborhood where only a withering orange grove stood before. His wife has provided meals for volunteers.

All but two of the houses are built and occupied, and the final two are nearing completion. The last house has been dedicated to Sandy and his wife in thanks for their hours of service.

"Elden is the one who has made this whole thing click," said Thousand Oaks resident Tim Schutz, a retired Hallmark cards sales manager who has volunteered with Habitat since 1997. "He has been great to work with. And one thing is for sure, it was impossible to outwork him."

Barring any problems securing visas, Sandy will not be around when the final house is completed. But he's at peace with that.

He toured the neighborhood last week, saying goodbye to old friends and taking digital photos of the homes and the people who built them. It is a neighborhood of colorful gardens and tidy lawns, a cul-de-sac where youngsters race up and down sidewalks and play ball on spacious front lawns.

He walked past a home built largely by local high school students as part of a community service project and another put up by Presbyterian church members from across Ventura County.

He talked about the small miracles that arise when doing good for others, such as when an El Nino storm clogged nearby debris basins with mud. Contractors dug out the dirt and gave it to Habitat to create pads for the Piru homes.

He reminisced with fellow volunteers, some of whom had been working on the Piru project as long as he had.

In his kind, grandfatherly way, he thanked a mother and son, both fresh volunteers.

"That's the way it has been: People have just come together to make this happen," he said. "It really has been something."

Sandy said he'll miss this community he helped create. And he'll miss the work and his friends.

But he said he also knows it's time to move on, convinced through prayer and Bible reading that he is doing God's will.

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