Photo: Bryce Kujat works Monday at The Fuller Center of Greater Carroll County’s 2021 Millard Fuller Legacy Build project in Hillsville, Va.
Volunteer Bryce Kujat’s philosophy on life is simple: Work hard,
play work harder
HILLSVILLE, Va. — Ohioan Bryce Kujat believes he has volunteered at every Millard Fuller Legacy Build in the United States since the inaugural one in 2009. He’s not 100 percent certain of that but can’t recall ever missing one. Then again, he stays so busy in the air as a pilot and on the ground with his construction projects that it’s almost impossible to recall every accomplishment.
“I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I’ve been to all of his Legacy Builds,” Kujat noted.
In fact, just pulling him off of the work site at The Fuller Center of Greater Carroll County’s Legacy Build project in Hillsville, Va., this week was quite the coup as Kujat is reluctant to stop working or to talk about himself. It was something only made possible by a lunch break — a quick one. He was cornered. There was no escape.
“I’d like to say that I do it because I want to help people, and I’d like to say because it helps the community, but I just really enjoy it,” Kujat said of his years of volunteering at these weeklong blitz builds. “I probably have some kind of a sickness where I just like to work really hard and then be exhausted at the end of the day and have something to look back at. It’s pretty selfish reasons. I don’t like to go on vacation to the beach and just stare at the ocean and waste my time. I think this is fulfilling on multiple levels.”
One of those levels is the friendships that are made and rekindled through the years.
“I get to see people that I only get to see once a year,” he added. “We get to spend time together in the evenings and have a common goal during the day. And on Friday night we can look back and say we made somebody else’s life better and then go home and be totally anonymous about it because I don’t like to be the center of attention.”
Kujat works high and low — as a pilot and in construction. He graduated cum laude from Kent State University with a degree in Aerospace Systems Engineering Technology in 1999 and has extensive and wide-ranging experience in the air, including as a flight instructor and flying nonprofit missions in such places as Rwanda, Uganda, the Congo and South Africa. He’s flown everything from cargo planes to seaplanes to gliders. As a private contractor for the U.S. Navy, he has piloted experimental surveillance aircraft and now conducts atmospheric research. Of course, because Kujat is reluctant to talk about himself, most of his aeronautical resume provided here did not come from him.
He’s a little more forthcoming about his love for construction. When he’s not in the air, he usually can be found working on one of his rental homes or rehabbing a house in the Cleveland area. While he has been a pilot for more than two decades, the 41-year-old has been swinging a hammer far longer. His father was the one who first put the hammer in his hand and in his heart.
“My dad grew up as a farmer, and he was in the Army Corps of Engineers, and that’s where he really kind of fell in love with construction and learned all the different trades,” Kujat said. “One of my earliest memories is standing on a gambrel roof barn on a chicken strip, scared out of my mind with a little red hammer, putting on shingles.
“That’s how I grew up,” he continued. “That’s how I paid for school. The only other job I’ve had beyond being a pilot is construction. I’ve always enjoyed it. Even as a kid, we were always running through the woods building treehouses and forts. I’ve just always either had a hammer in my hand or a control stick.”
His love for serving on Fuller Center job sites is shared by his wife, Maura George. In fact, she made the pilgrimage to Virginia from Ohio before having to return to her job as a transplant nurse midweek.
“It’s a real fulfillment of a partnership in a marriage in my opinion,” Kujat said. “I don’t know of a higher cause than helping others, and maybe doing it anonymously. Maura is a people person, well beyond my capability, and she just loves the community aspect of it as much as I love the head-down hard work. With Millard’s goal to build a house and have a strong community, I think the two of us are good halves to put that together.”
While Kujat loves seeing old, familiar faces at Legacy Builds, he wouldn’t mind meeting a few new ones.
“I did my first build when I was 25,” said Kujat, who is now 41. “Unfortunately, I’ve been consistently the youngest person on the site. The volunteer group is aging, and I’m bringing up the rear on it, unfortunately. That’s always the debate: How do we get more young people involved?
“We can say what we want about social media and community outreach, but I think getting them involved really is just about taking them by the hand and bringing them to a build for a week and showing them that this is more enjoyable than just going to a resort and drinking every day,” he added. “You look back at the end of the day, and you’re sore and you’re tired, but the sense of fulfillment is something you can’t explain to somebody — you have to show it to them.”
As a house leader, Kujat works to make sure the volunteers who boast wide-ranging levels of skills from beginner to expert are put to maximum use.
“As a house leader, the main thing is sharpening of the leadership skills, figuring out how to talk to people, figuring out what people are good or bad at right away so you don’t waste a lot of time,” he said. “You’ve got to play to people’s strengths, and you’ve only got five days to do that. The faster you can figure that out, the better.”
That sounds like a lot of pressure, so it’d be natural for Kujat to lose his temper once in a while. Yet, through multiple builds as a house leader, he always stays on an even keel. He says that comes from enjoying the work and having the perspective that comes from traveling the world near and far.
“I think a problem a lot of Americans have is that we don’t spend a lot of time in high-stress situations,” he said. “We lead very soft, cushy, easy lives. We like to think it’s hard, and we like to tell people how hard our lives are, but we don’t go anywhere and see where it really is hard. I spend a lot of time out of the country, and I’ve spent a lot of time in some really bad places. I’ve seen some really bad things. This is not hard. This is nothing to get upset about. This is just hanging out with friends and building a house. This is my vacation, so I’m not going to get upset. I’m not going to let that happen.”
While he primarily builds in the U.S., the perspective he has gleaned from his travels is one reason he believes The Fuller Center’s Global Builders program is something people need to try — not only for the pure joy of helping a family have a decent place to live but also for the perspective-enhancing experience.
“Not enough Americans go overseas,” Kujat said. “That’s where The Fuller Center international builds come in. If people would go there and see these things and see how people live their entire lives, they’d come home and realize that the 56-inch TV you have is fine. You don’t need a 60-inch TV. Just relax. Don’t be offended if somebody looks at you crooked on the street. Just go about your life and work hard for other people.”
Meanwhile, he plans to continue being a leader on Fuller Center builds as long as he is able.
“I’ll do it as long as my knees and ankles let me do it, for sure,” he said.
After the knees and ankles go, though, he may rethink that whole even keel thing.
“When that doesn’t happen, I’ll sit in a lawn chair and yell at people on the roof,” he said with a laugh.