Toolie Build bolstered by several veteran house leaders

A Fuller Center for Housing blitz week requires each house to have a knowledgeable construction leader to keep the project on track and to make efficient use of the good-hearted volunteers who may not be experienced homebuilders.

At this week’s Toolie’s Birthday Blitz Build, we are fortunate to have several such individuals working on the home for the Battle family in Americus, Georgia — a home that is being made possible by Karen “Toolie” Warkentien, who wanted to mark her 50th birthday by building a house in partnership with a family who needed a hand-up.

“It makes all the difference in the world,” Warkentien said of having so many leaders on a single house build. “We’ve got such a great cadre of people who can take the job and run with it. They’re not even just crew leaders — they’ve been house leaders through Habitat and The Fuller Center. Most of the folks here are folks that I’ve worked with for years and years.”

Among the veteran house leaders is Mike Hosey of Angier, N.C. Hosey was the house leader when Warkentien first set foot in the affordable housing movement as a volunteer at Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy Carter Work Project in LaGrange, Ga., in 2003. She said the great experience she had working under Hosey hooked her for life. In fact, not only is she a volunteer, donor and house sponsor, but now she also is a member of The Fuller Center for Housing’s international board of directors.

“I feel honored,” Hosey said of Warkentien giving him credit for roping her into the movement. “We’re all in this to serve the Lord and share his love by doing things for others and setting an example. If it’s a good enough example that it brought somebody back, I feel humbled that it worked.

“We often do the watering, but we’re not always expecting to see the growth,” he added. “We’re just commanded to sow seeds in water.”

Peter Salemme of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is another frequent house leader on Habitat and Fuller Center builds. While he already was committed to work on another build this week, he was able to make it to Americus for this past weekend’s Millard Fuller Boulevard celebration and the first day of the Toolie Build. His leadership was key in getting the house framed on Monday.

“I came to support my friend Toolie and also to enjoy meeting friends from past builds but also to practice unconditional giving by helping to build a home for a complete stranger — until I met Damien and Cassie Battle on Monday,” said Salemme, who not only is a construction leader on Habitat and Fuller Center projects but also is a Habitat homeowner. In fact, he served as the house leader in the construction of his own home — a home Warkentien said he was reluctant to obtain, arguing others needed the help more than his family did.

But Warkentien twisted his arm. She’s pretty good at that according to Mary Ann Turner-DeJesus of New York City. While not a house leader, Turner-DeJesus is an experienced Fuller Center volunteer and met Warkentien during that same Carter Work Project in 2003. They’ve been friends ever since, but that doesn’t mean she is immune from Warkentien’s arm-twisting.

“She officially came up with this idea a year ago, but three years ago she made me pull out my Blackberry and made me put ‘Toolie Build’ on my calendar,” Turner-DeJesus said with a laugh. “Unfortunately, I’ve had builds that I had to miss at the last minute. But Karen swore she would hunt me down to the corners of the Earth if I did not come to this.”

“Mary Ann always says she’s unskilled, but she’s a mean sider and does so many things well,” Warkentien said. “She’s been my co-pilot on so many of these trips. But it’s also good to meet all these new folks because we do have some new folks. It’s all because they wanted to help build, and they all wanted to help on the Toolie Build, which means a lot to me.”

While there is a collection of leaders on this house build, Kenneth Young of Wickford, R.I., emerged as the de facto house captain this week. The towering Young is all business on the work site and a gentle giant when the work is done. His arm needed no twisting to join the Toolie Build, nor did the arm of his friend and fellow frequent house captain Steve Lumpp.

“Toolie’s just a friend, and I’ve known Toolie for 10 years at least,” he said. “We’ve worked together on Fuller and Habitat builds. She’s sponsored houses in places, and I’ve worked on them. She’s just good people. When I found out she was having the build, I signed up when they first announced it. She didn’t even have to ask.”

Young said that having so many leaders has not been a problem because they talked it out beforehand.

“A lot of us have worked together, and we talked at the very beginning of this about how we knew there would be little conflicts because of everybody having done their own thing,” Young said. “So, we kind of resolved everything at the get-go and said, ‘We do what we do and we go.’ I wouldn’t say any of us are killing each other.”

Warkentien is pleased with how the focus has been on managing the work and not managing roles.

“It’s a nice thing to have to have that kind of leadership,” she said. “We had a lot a chiefs and not so many indians. But it’s worked out very well because if we have an issue, we have enough people to pow-wow and find out what to do and how to deal with it. I think it’s been fantastic. We’ve been able to get a lot of work done every day. We’ve got a smaller crew, but I think we’ve done remarkably well because of the skill level of the folks that we’ve got.”

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