As the calendar turned to 2020, Habitat for Humanity of Flathead Valley was ready to plow forward on an expansive project in Lakeside with three single-family residences and two townhomes, which had broken ground and were on track to provide affordable housing for five families in a timely fashion.
Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Montana in March. While staff at Habitat for Humanity of Flathead Valley (HFHFV) continued their daily responsibilities, and a core group of volunteers was allowed to chip away at construction, progress was largely stalled without the usual robust teams of volunteers.
“It really hit us hard and slowed down the process immensely,” Rebecca Wilson, HFHFV’s community outreach coordinator, said. “The walls were built and we were ready.”
Then a team from AmeriCorps arrived in late summer, reaccelerating the construction timeline, only to be transferred to disaster-relief service in California, where wildfires were raging. But two more AmeriCorps teams arrived in the Flathead Valley in October to take up the mantle.
“AmeriCorps has just stepped up hugely,” HFHFV Executive Director Bob Helder said. “They’re working five days a week, eight to 10 hours a day. They’re cranking it out for us.”
Habitat for Humanity relies on volunteers to build its affordable homes for qualified families, and this year it has lost 5,600 volunteer hours due to COVID-19. And while AmeriCorps is helping make up for lost time, Wilson notes that the core contingent of HFHFV volunteers allowed the Lakeside project to remain viable in the meantime.
“We were maintaining and still moving in a forward direction because of the wonderful and loyal efforts of our regulars,” Wilson said. “Then it really started to roll in October with AmeriCorps.”
AmeriCorps is a national service network committed to “improving lives and fostering civic engagement” through three programs: State and National, VISTA and National Community Civilian Corps (NCCC). AmeriCorps has a substantial presence in Northwest Montana at a range of entities, including state parks and various nonprofits.
NCCC teams have been working on the Lakeside construction, with one team assigned to the single-family residences and another to the townhomes to maintain COVID-19 precautions and avoid the mixing of groups.
One team finished its service here and traveled back to its regional campus in Sacramento on Dec. 20, while the other is slated to work until the first week of March, with a two-week Christmas break followed by a mandatory quarantine period upon returning. Another team helped out at local food banks in the fall.
Grace Bargerstock, an 18-year-old NCCC member from Michigan, said she and other members didn’t have any prior construction experience, which is common with HFHFV volunteers of all kinds, not just AmeriCorps. Volunteers rely on Steve Tartaligno, HFHFV’s construction supervisor, to guide them as they learn on the job.
“He’s been excellent,” Bargerstock said of Tartaligno on Dec. 17, three days before her team shipped out to Sacramento. “He’s a very good teacher.”
Bargerstock said the work was rewarding, knowing that it will benefit local families, and had the opportunity to meet the homeowners. The service members’ stay in Montana this year, however, has been significantly altered by COVID-19, preventing them from engaging with the community as much as they would like.
Bargerstock’s team, who lived together at a Lakeside church during their time here, tried to immerse themselves in their temporary home despite the restrictions. They went to Glacier National Park, drove through neighborhoods to see Christmas light displays and enjoyed meeting locals when possible.
“It’s been challenging,” she said. “We definitely wanted more interaction.”
NCCC is a full-time, 10-month program in which 2,100 young adults ages 18 to 26 years old serve nationwide each year. In exchange for their service, members receive $6,195 to help pay for college or pay back existing student loans, as well as a small living allowance, room and board, leadership development, “increased self-confidence and the knowledge that, through active citizenship, people can indeed make a difference.”
The stipends keep members afloat during their service, but the small amounts of money are hardly the motivation to sign up. Members like Bargerstock and 21-year-old Taruni Donti of Denver, whose career ambition is “to help people,” both said they were drawn to AmeriCorps in the name of service.
“You want to go out and do something meaningful, especially at a time like this,” Bargerstock said.
Habitat for Humanity is based on the concept of “a hand up, not a handout.” It doesn’t give away houses; rather, applying families must meet a number of requirements before acceptance and then commit 500 hours of sweat equity into building the house — 250 hours themselves and 250 from extended family, friends and acquaintances.
Approved applicants also take first-time homebuyer and financial courses, and they’re responsible for paying the 30-year affordable no-interest mortgage.
Following the completion of the Lakeside homes and others in Columbia Falls, HFHFV will have helped 241 people, including 143 children, secure homes with affordable mortgages. The organization also navigated COVID-19 logistics to move its retail shop ReStore into a new location in May on U.S. Highway 93 South in Kalispell.
All five families who will move into the Lakeside homes have children. While the project is still behind schedule by quite a few months, the full-time hours of AmeriCorps have allowed work to start getting back on track, while also giving the homeowners confidence that construction is moving forward, Helder said.
Helder said community support has remained strong despite the uncertainties of the pandemic. ReStore is on course to hit sales projections, thanks to people donating and shopping regularly, while financial support for the broader organization has continued.
“Our community has been incredible,” he said. “They have stepped up and found unique ways to support us. Every $100 donated equals a square foot of a child’s bedroom, a kitchen where meals will be cooked, a living room — someone’s home.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.