By Sarah OíLeary
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of updates from Sarah O’Leary, a Science Hill High School and University of Tennessee-Knoxville graduate, who is cycling across the northern U.S. while helping advance the cause of affordable housing with “Bike & Build.”
A little more than 2,000 miles ago, I biked out of Madison, Wisc. Since then, I’ve pedaled across Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and now into Idaho. Montana was my favorite, with 10 days of biking on US-2 West under the biggest sky I’ve ever seen.
Finally, the Rockies came into sight, and we biked over them, going through Glacier National Park on Going to the Sun Road. A 20-mile climb, followed by a 30-mile descent, took us to Whitefish, Mont., where we spent two days building with Habitat for Humanity of Flathead Valley.
Whitefish is a beautiful little town surrounded by mountains. In that way, it reminded me of home. With all the natural beauty that surrounds it, Whitefish has become a tourist destination and housing prices have risen drastically: the average home costs between $250,000 and $300,000. Thus, affordable housing options are very needed.
Our group spent two days working in Kalispell, a town next to Whitefish and within the jurisdiction of the Flathead Valley Habitat chapter. Five Habitat houses are being constructed in the neighborhood where we worked, and we built on two of them. I worked on framing a roof; others installed drywall and poured a concrete driveway.
The house I worked on will be home to a family of six, and I met them all and worked with both the parents on the site.
In addition, two of their friends volunteered with us. Each Habitat partner family is required to work a minimum of 500 hours on their own house, and half of these hours can be donated by friends and coworkers. I think this is beautiful because it brings the community together to support one another.
One of my favorite parts about this experience was meeting Katy Branston, a two-time Bike & Build leader and the operational director of Habitat for Humanity of Flathead Valley.
Katy does an excellent job of coordinating volunteer groups, and is developing the program so that groups from around the country can visit Whitefish to both enjoy the mountains and volunteer.
“Bike & Build is what led me to Habitat and to pursuing a career in affordable housing,” Branston told me. “I value the second part of Bike & Build’s mission, engaging young adults in the affordable housing cause, and having a job where I get to do that every day is amazing. Bike & Build definitely made me more qualified in my job now. I started right after I led a trip two years ago working part-time and it grew into a full-time job.
Getting to engage others in service, be an advocate in the community, and impact the affordable housing cause are all parts of my current position.”
I also enjoyed working with the construction manager, Steve Tartagline. To him, each home built represents a child who will have opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise, and each step of the building process helps meet this goal. Each house that he builds undergoes a series of tests to ensure it is as energy efficient as possible, beginning once the first insulation is installed and continuing until the house is complete. This allows families to pay no more than $200 a year in electric bills.
When the five houses in this neighborhood are complete, 19 children will move into the neighborhood and call it home. Five families will make memories and celebrate holidays and do homework and eat breakfast within those walls. All of this is the joint effort of the many people contributing time, money, and supplies to make those things a reality.