BY RON CASSIE
On a recent and warm Thursday morning, Kevin Blanchard stood next to an abandoned home in the working class neighborhood of Baltimore City’s Pen Lucy neighborhood, breaking up a damaged concrete slab with a jackhammer.
Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity as part of a two-day “Veterans Build,” the 29-year-old American Legion field service representative—ear plugs in, hard hat on—quickly broke a sweat. Although Blanchard didn’t have a lot of construction-type experience, he did have some, and certainly no one watching him work would’ve guessed that beneath his long pants he was missing his one of his legs from the knee down.
“When I was in Iraq, I was in a combat engineer unit,” Blanchard said. “Part of my job was using a jackhammer to dig up and to repair roads.”
A former U.S. Marine corporal, Blanchard was hit by an I.E.D. in 2005, spending 13 months in the hospital over the course of 30 surgeries on his legs. He has recovered with the help of a prosthesis well enough to tackle challenging hikes—and the Baltimore “Veteran’s Build” was the second time that he’s volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.
“Mentally, I don’t like to sit at the desk all day,” Blanchard said, smiling, adding that previously he’d also worked for a company that built green roofs. “I do get to travel, getting out to VA medical centers, and that’s the best part of my job.”
As part of the Baltimore City “Veteran’s Build,” Habitat for Humanity International and Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake teamed up with more than 200 of America’s servicemen and women—veterans and active military—as well as AmeriCorps VISTA and Veteran Corps VISTA members in late April to rehabilitate three homes on the same street, partnering with low-income families.
Volunteers also included representatives from the AmeriCorps VISTA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Student Veterans of America and a host of other service-related organizations.
“The gratitude that we have for these active members of the military, veterans and CNCS service members cannot be measured. We are honored that they are building homes, and improving communities with Habitat for Humanity,” said Liz Blake, senior vice president, Habitat for Humanity International. “And as part of Habitat’s national Veterans Initiative we will continue to work with this country’s service men and women by providing veteran and military families housing solutions, and volunteer and employment opportunities.”
Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake CEO Mike Posko and Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey, deputy commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department, were among the officials addressing the volunteers at the site, after donuts and coffee, just before the hammer swinging began.
“The Habitat model depends on volunteers and partners like the City of Baltimore, to expand revitalization efforts in places like the Pen Lucy neighborhood,” Posko told the volunteers. “Habitat for Humanity works for affordable homeownership and understands what it means to work with hard-working families.”
In a statement, he also praised the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
“With more than 46 million Americans living in poverty, AmeriCorps VISTA members are making a significant difference in communities across the nation—and right here in Baltimore,” Posko said. “With passion, commitment, and hard work, these remarkable workers create or expand programs designed to bring individuals and communities out of poverty, supporting our Habitat mission.”
Duval, representing Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, described her boss as “an enthusiastic advocate for affordable homes.”
“This gives us hope, makes us believe that we can revitalize Baltimore City,” Duval told the volunteers. “Kids who grow up in homes that their parents own do better in school because they’re under less stress. Their parents also tend to be healthier.”
Marcus Thompson, 32, who serves in the Air Force and is stationed near Baltimore at Fort Meade, said the “Veterans Build” was the first time he’d volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. His previous construction experience, he said, was limited to helping his father on small projects, “mostly cleaning up lumber.”
“I think I’m just fortunate to be able to give back and help someone else with all the blessings I’ve received,” Thompson said. “Hopefully my small contribution will help someone move into these houses. It looks like a nice neighborhood and you can imagine kids in these houses some day playing in the neighborhood.”
Like Thompson, David Baltz from Fort Meade’s Naval Information Operation Command, was also volunteering with Habitat for Humanity for the first time in Baltimore. “I’m here to contribute to the community whatever I can,” Baltz said, smiling as well on a bright morning while jokingly admitting to some selfish reasons for signing up for the project. “I’m hoping to have some fun and also learn something—I’ve got a few projects at home I’d like to tackle.”
Neal Pointer, a Vietnam War veteran originally from Shreveport, La. and veteran project coordinator for VISTA Veteran Corps, has been volunteering for eight years with Habitat for Humanity. He said veterans and the mission of Habitat for Humanity naturally make a great fit.
“Soldiers, servicemen, veterans have a strong desire to give back,” Pointer said. “We did fight for the right for everyone else to live free, but it doesn’t end there. We’re accustomed to giving of ourselves and that doesn’t end when we are discharged.”
Pointer also noted that it’s possible for low-income veterans to qualify for Habitat homes as well.
“First, a lot of veterans have difficulty when they leave the service,” Pointer said. “It’s a difficult transition and many suffer from homelessness and need job training before they can gradually build a productive life. Over time, some of those veterans could qualify for a Habitat House.
Given their military training, veterans, of course, remain valuable volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. “They know how to work as a team and follow instructions,” Pointer said.
In fact, last year, veteran and Habitat volunteer Ronald Moulden and his family moved into a Habitat home in Annapolis. A former Marine and single father of four, Moulden’s Habitat house was built during the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project the previous fall.
Moulden was also one of the veterans who made the journey to Baltimore to help with the new project.
“It was my neighbors who suggested that I apply for a Habitat home,” said Moulden, a HVAC technician with the state of Maryland. “I’ve got my home, but I’m still willing to help others.”