Despite crisis, volunteers work on Habitat house

  • Volunteers with Nassau Habitat for Humanity work to complete the outside of 601 Calhoun St. JOHN SCHAEFFNER/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    Volunteers with Nassau Habitat for Humanity work to complete the outside of 601 Calhoun St. JOHN SCHAEFFNER/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

John Schaffner / Special for the News-Leader

During times of major local and national crisis – such as the coronavirus pandemic that has halted life as we have known it and paused our country – it is easy for the most part to push aside commitments made to others during easier times. That can be especially true when the keeping of those commitments relies primarily on the efforts of volunteers.

I recently was amazed to discover that the volunteers building the latest Nassau Habitat for Humanity house in Fernandina Beach – a volunteer workforce of which virtually every member is a senior male – have continued to work through the coronavirus crisis to deliver on the organization’s commitment to complete the house by May.

That commitment was part of the agreement between Nassau Habitat for Humanity and the major sponsors for this particular house, the Jacksonville Jaguars and TIAA Financial.

It may be particularly significant that the keys to this house will be turned over to its new owner on time, as Nassau Habitat for Humanity celebrates a milestone of providing new homes for low-income families for the past 25 years. In fact, the house at 601 Calhoun St. is the 44th house the organization has constructed over those years. All but two have been in Fernandina Beach.

It was late-February/early March when I thought Habitat for Humanity might be a good volunteer opportunity for me, although there are some physical limits on what this 78-year-old body can handle. A visit to the house worksite around the first of March was uplifting. About a dozen men around my age (some older) were digging trenches for water or sewer lines, doing trim work and cabinetry inside the house, and seemingly enjoying every minute of it. After months of construction work, the house was nearing completion.

Through some brief conversations, I learned that some of these men have worked on Habitat houses here for many years – 10, 15 or more. Virtually all are retired. Several are former professionals. Most are not former homebuilders. Many are transplants to here from elsewhere, but they are committed to producing these homes in this community.

Shortly after that visit, Fernandina Beach, Nassau County, Florida, and the country turned upside down as the coronavirus pandemic hit home and everyone was told to stay at home and practice social distancing (keeping six feet apart from others). I thought surely this workforce of older, potentially high-risk men would not be able to honor the contractual commitment to complete the house by May under these restrictions. Not so. The work has gone on.

There have not been a dozen or so men working at the house over the past month, but there have been about five volunteers showing up for a half-day’s work twice a week to finish work started months ago in less troublesome times. While observing social distancing, they continue to work to ensure that the commitment Nassau Habitat for Humanity made to the Jaguars and TIAA for a May completion date is met. The entire core group of volunteers deserves more than a pat on the back for their commitment and service to the community.

Grace Powers, who will become the owner of this home and who has also provided some of her own sweat equity in the building of the home, is the mother of four children. She will save hundreds of dollars a month by trading rent for a lower mortgage payment and ownership of a home in Fernandina Beach.

By the way, there is more planned for Nassau Habitat for Humanity in this 25th anniversary year. With hope that the environment can return to near normal by this fall, the organization plans to begin construction on the first part of a six-townhome development on Elm Street in Fernandina Beach, the first two of which are scheduled for completion in June 2021.

I suspect almost all of the same group of volunteers will show up again to work on that project, and my hopes are that I will be able to join them then and contribute what I can to this worthy cause.

For further information about Nassau Habitat for Humanity, visit