Karen Lewis simply went to church and for her, that’s where the journey began.

“The preacher was talking about ‘Miracle on 34th Street,'” she recalled, “and he ended the sermon with ‘probably no one here is wanting for a house.’ Then I went downstairs, and that’s when I saw the advertisement for Habitat for Humanity…” Lewis, who’d been renting living space from a colleague for herself and her daughter, got an application, sent it in and waited.

Tracy Gondek simply read the newspaper. “I saw an ad in the newspaper, and also someone had told my aunt about it, so I called for an application.”

Now the two women are next-door neighbors, brought together by one of the country’s best neighborhood builders: Habitat for Humanity. Recently, the Gondek and Lewis families rejoiced in their good fortune – thankful for their new Lufkin Street, Auburn, homes, which they moved into just after Veterans Day.

At the dedication of the homes two weeks prior to moving in, both women were moved by the outpouring of love and commitment from the people who’d worked so hard to make their dreams come true.

“I want to say, ‘Thank you,’ to everyone,” Gondek began, holding back tears. “I’m feeling so emotional right now.”

“I’m at a loss for words,” added Lewis, “and I just want to say ‘Thank you.'”

Many volunteers were singled out for their dedication to the mission. As project coordinator Peter Van Oosten of Greene, the only paid employee, reminded everyone, more than 100 people were involved with the building of these homes.

During the blessing of the homes, each family received a Bible, in keeping with Habitat’s Christian philosophy that “a house should be built on solid rock,” noted Susan Spellman of the Church Relations Committee.

They also received something soft. The Church Mice Quilters, a group of 11 women who meet regularly at Thomas Memorial Baptist Church in Lewiston, gave each family member a quilt. Crissy Lewis and her mom both chose blue for their primary color; Kayla Gondek chose pink; her brother, Rick Chamness, selected blue; and their mom, Tracy, went with green.

Breaking ground

Including these two homes, Androscoggin Habitat for Humanity has now built 12 houses in the area.

For these, the city of Auburn received the land from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, then donated the two lots to Habitat, said volunteer Sally Belisle.

Each project is slightly different, as are the volunteers, although many of them return time after time to reap the rewards of knowing their work has helped others in a time of need.

On any given Saturday, volunteers just show up, ready to work, with or without tools. They roll up their sleeves and spend hours – sometimes entire days – helping build a home for people they don’t know.

The volunteers’ diverse backgrounds create an interesting patchwork of talent and treasure. The morning usually starts out slowly, with just a handful of volunteers, and by 9 a.m., the number has grown. Late one morning, at least 25 people had shown up from all walks of life.

Rick Fessenden of Greenwood, a pharmacist in his other life, said volunteering for Habitat was something he’d always wanted to do. “I just went to the Web site (www.androhforh.org) and found out they were working on these two homes,” he said. The next thing the Oxford County man knew, he was spending an entire Saturday pounding nails.

Paul Belisle, chairman of the Building Committee, says that during the week a core group of retirees show up and prepare a site, getting the jobs ready for “the weekenders” who’ll move the project forward at an even greater pace.

“Sometimes you have to yell at the volunteers to take a break,” added his wife, Sally. “And then before the break is over, they’re back at work!”

Coincidentally, volunteer David Crossman strolled toward the lunch table to ask, “Do you have to eat if you’re having fun?”

Future architect

Leavitt Area High School senior Justine McGray of Turner found out about the opportunity to volunteer through her school. She was one of about a dozen students who showed up one Thursday morning last summer when it was time to insulate ceilings and put up siding.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m looking to be an architect, and this will help me understand this side of the process.”

Junior Kim Enos, working with her friend on the Gondek home, had a more philosophical approach to her volunteerism. “We have to look out for each other,” she said. “If we don’t help each other out, it’s going to be a pretty sad world. We all have bad times, and it’s important to help people, even if you don’t know them.”

Dwayne Burgess of Turner, another Leavitt senior, said he believes working on the Habitat houses is important “because you can unite a community by bringing people together and providing someone with a home.” Classmate Ashley Pierce of Turner said she likes getting involved because “it makes me feel better to know I’m doing something for the community. It’s fun to get together, and it gives me a new experience.”

A sense of community seems to be a prevailing theme in any Habitat project. “It’s unique to have two houses going up at the same time, and one of the things that makes these projects work is interested neighbors,” noted Habitat volunteer Pat Clement, as one of those interested neighbors strolled through the work sites. “We’re happy to have their involvement; integrating into the neighborhood is important. That’s where life really begins.”

New homeowner Karen Lewis has found the entire experience breathtaking.

“When we first found out we were accepted, it was exciting, but now, seeing it being built, there is a different kind of excitement,” she said. “For such a long time it was an idea. And now it’s really happening, and it’s even more meaningful when it’s people you don’t know.”

Tracy Gondek said the time spent watching her home grow before her eyes has been “amazing. I don’t even have the words to describe how awesome it is.” Both families spent their first night under their respective roofs in mid-November.

“I was too excited to sleep, so I really haven’t slept yet,” Tracy said just two days later. “I keep thinking I’m going to hear the people downstairs, and there’s no one there!”

Karen Lewis was just as wide-awake. “It seemed like we had been waiting for so long, and I couldn’t believe it was actually here.”

Crissy Lewis, however, slept soundly all night.

“She kept saying, ‘Thank you, Mom, thank you for doing this,'” Karen recalled. “And she said she sleeps better with a quilt.”

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