R House builds community one class at a time

For four years now, students and other members of the College community have partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build a brand new home for a deserving family.

For four years now, the sounds of hammers and power tools have preceded those of class bells and lecture halls on the Roanoke College campus.  It's not the ongoing capital improvements that are the cause of the ruckus. Instead, during each freshmen orientation week, students and other members of the College community have joined together to build "R House," a campus-wide effort to provide in just a few days a brand-new home for a deserving family in the Habitat for Humanity Roanoke Valley Program.

R House fits right in with the College's mission to prepare its graduates for "responsible lives of learning, service and leadership." The new students will have countless opportunities for classroom learning and for leadership within one of Roanoke's 100 or so organizations, but before any of these activities even begin, the students learn the value of serving others. Working on R House is a scheduled part of orientation-every student works a 90-minute shift. Building a house within four days of arriving on campus is all it takes to show students what service really means. R House is in its fourth year, so after the class of 2013 built its R House in August, every student at Roanoke had worked on a house for Habitat for Humanity. Few, if any, other colleges can make such a strong statement.

A focus on service has been part of the new Maroon experience for some time. In the early 1990s, Rev. Paul Henrickson, dean of the chapel, first suggested that community service projects could be incorporated into orientation week. For a number of years, the College organized an off-campus service day. The entire freshman class and all the necessary tools were transported to numerous worksites. "While there were no real snafus in the process," Henrickson says, "this method of providing a service project during orientation did get stressful."

After a few years, Henrickson concluded that students did not have to go off campus in order to extend their reach into the community. Henrickson and Jesse Griffin, director of community service and assistant to the chaplain, had several ideas for service projects that could be completed on campus, including one involving Habitat for Humanity. The College has worked with the organization for over 15 years, providing workers to Habitat building sites in South Carolina and throughout the Roanoke Valley. More than 35 fall and spring break trips have focused on Habitat construction.

In 2005, Griffin visited the University of South Carolina to watch an on-site build of a Habitat house and to gain insight into the process. Griffin notes that they built the whole house on campus and moved it in one piece, something not possible at Roanoke due to transportation constraints. Henrickson's brother, Mark, suggested that, in order to make the project work here, the house could be built in separate sections. The construction looks like a whole house, but then it is "broken" in half to move it to the permanent site.

Such an ambitious and expensive plan involving hundreds of people and the support of an entire college might never have gotten off the drawing board, but this one advanced quickly, thanks to a generous donation. Paul and Martha Ann Higginbotham '65 gave $25,000 in the summer of 2006 to fund a Habitat house for the students to build. One stipulation: The house had to be built on the Roanoke campus. With the gift, the idea for on-campus service that had been in the works suddenly became a real possibility. "The key was the Higginbothams," Henrickson says. "They are generous people and the ones who made it happen."

In the past four years, Roanoke's first-year students have built four houses for four different families. The names of the volunteers may change each year, but the general crowd remains the same, even if it seems an unlikely coalition at first glance. Students, faculty, grounds crew, maintenance workers, housekeeping staff and local Habitat organizers gather together to build each R House. President Maxey has helped every year. Volunteers take shifts throughout the day and continue to help once orientation is over. Roughly 650 people work on the site, and about 35 additional volunteers are involved in the process of putting it all together, including several each from the Roanoke and central South Carolina Habitat organizations and about 18 of the College's Service Corps members.

"There is a long-standing relationship between Habitat in the Roanoke Valley and Roanoke College that has grown exceptionally strong over the last four years with the R House builds," Habitat for Humanity project manager Brian Clark '01 says.

Griffin praises Clark and the other Habitat staffers, saying, "They are great to work with, and they drop everything they do for a week [to come help us out]."

Also, the family who will own the home is almost always on site working during the build, which makes the project even more meaningful because everyone on campus knows exactly whom they are helping. "I had a lot of fun working on the R House project," says Chelsea Sprouse '13. "It was a very rewarding experience. Working on the house made me feel good because I knew that I was helping someone."

The energy of working on the house is pretty contagious, and many people come back to work on houses in subsequent years, says Griffin. He also says that, since R House's beginning, the project has continued to get smoother and to be a better experience for everyone. This year, for the first time, a two-story-instead of a one-story-house was constructed.

"We are able to do this because we are a small school," says Henrickson. "R House unifies the freshman class and the College. It puts everyone on the same page."

Clark points out that the commitment to R House shows that Roanoke recognizes the value of an individual's engagement in the larger community. "Academics are crucial," he says, "but having the R House build take place before classes start sets an expectation of how students might begin to think about how to apply their classroom experience in the real world."

That's the kind of education you can expect when you come to R House.

View a video from R House 2009

About the Author

Megan Semmelman is a sociology major with a communications concentration from Pennsylvania. She is a student writer for Roanoke College Public Relations and is active on campus in several organizations, including Chi Omega and Relay for Life.

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