Building a Dream Under the Arizona Sun

At 3:26 AM on this mid-October morning, I am unable to sleep any further into the Mountain Time Zone morning. I lay awake wondering what the day will bring. I have never participated in a community build project, but many weeks ago, when I received the invitation from our good business partner The Home Depot, I immediately checked my calendar and blocked out the days.

After arriving the day before the build, the sponsors and participants were treated to a business presentation in the main ballroom of the resort. We heard about The Home Depot Foundation’s commitment of over $80 million during the next five years for the purpose of ensuring every veteran has a safe place to call home. For this build, coordinated by The Home Depot Building Services and Operations team, I would be joined by a couple hundred participants from The Home Depot, their vendor partners, and Habitat for Humanity of Tucson. After the presentation, a welcome reception was held on the patio, nestled in the hills of the High Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. This is not just a few people with hammers. This is a massive nationwide initiative.

The next morning, I enter the breakfast ballroom almost 30 minutes early. I am pleased to see a couple of other early risers. I grab a coffee and join Mike and Scott, a pair of burly non-office dwellers in their 50’s. I shake their calloused hands, confirming what was already obvious; both of them work with their hands and are likely skilled tradesmen. I am quite sure they realize I don’t, and am not.

Just before 7:30, I settle into my seat on the third of five coach buses on our way to the work site. We pass through Tucson, from the north, towards the south side. Some thirty miles later, we pull into a subdivision named Copper Vista. As we exit the bus, volunteers and neighbors cheer our arrival. They form a path for us to walk through, much like a football team greets their teammates coming onto the field for a game, clapping and thanking us. We are ushered to supply tables to get our work belts, gloves and hard hats. A variety of sunscreen products are at hand to encourage us to protect ourselves from overexposure. Under a cloudless, crystal blue sky, I don’t hesitate to wipe and spray sunscreen liberally. An impressive sound system, complete with a DJ, fills the neighborhood with music.

I find my team near the front of a house that has the walls rough framed, but not much else. We gather around the foreman and are informed we will be “rolling trusses” today. I am not sure what that is, but he explains he needs a team of three with hammers on scaffolding on one side of the house, and another team of three on the other side of the house, and the rest should follow him. Given the chance to swing a hammer while precariously perched on rickety scaffolding is irresistible, so I grab a hammer and nails and head to the far side of the house, followed by two other men.

From our vantage point, we observe an impressive stack of roof trusses between the framed houses. If you don’t know what a roof truss is, just think of a very large triangle made with framing lumber. The base of the triangle is wider than the house, which creates the overhangs that become the eaves, and the top of the triangle is the peak of the roof. Rolling trusses is the process of getting each massive and heavy hunk of framed wood from the stack and nailed into position on top of the sidewalls of the home. It is heavy, awkward, and exhausting work.

We work our way from the back of the house towards the front, and pick up speed as we go. The sun is hot, and the work is tough. I constantly remind myself that having a hand place incorrectly when a truss is rolled will minimally result in broken bones. We stop for a fantastic cookout lunch, rest for a few minutes, and force ourselves back to the scaffolding before we doze off. We continue our mid-afternoon quest towards the front of the house as the blue Arizona sky intensifies. As we work, we are treated to low flyovers from nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Pilots practice touch-and-go landings in fighter jets, bringing them close enough over the peak of our roof that we can see their faces turned towards us. Completing trusses, we move onto cutting and hanging external wallboard on the front of the house. The combination of saw dust and sunscreen quickly turns our exposed skin into something that resembles Macadamia Encrusted Sea Bass. We ignore it and continue to work our way up and finish off most of the peak before we are stopped and told to turn in our tools. The foreman gathers the group and congratulations us on a fantastic day of building. As we step back and look, we now have a house ready for roofing. As I look down the row of houses, the rest of the teams have made similar progress. A dozen framed houses working their way towards becoming homes. Not a bad day’s work for a mob of volunteers turned makeshift construction crew.

All of the teams are marshaled down to the far end of the street. A small stage has been erected and we are told there is going to be a dedication ceremony. As the sea of orange shirts and hats watch, the Hernandez family is welcomed to the stage by one of the Board members from Habitat Tucson. We listen to the congratulations, praise and thanks for our support and time. For the first time, the weight and mission of the day really registers across the crowd. Right here, right now … this is the reason for us to be here. It isn’t the receptions or the networking. Tired and dirty, we become silent, still and attentive.

LuzMaria Hernandez walks to the microphone with her three-year-old daughter in front of her. As she begins to speak, it is clear she is overwhelmed looking out into the hundreds of faces that have been working so hard all day. These aren’t the faces that built her home, or at least not all the same faces, but she is here to voice her appreciation for all of us and the others before us. As her young daughter tries to melt into her legs, LuzMaria struggles through her speech. She haltingly pushes the words out as she loses her battle with her own emotions. She is going to cut the ribbon on her new home, a safe place for her and her family, and it is apparent to everyone it is more than a just hard day’s work … it is her dream come true. LuzMaria probably thinks she isn’t doing a good job with her speech, but judging by the silent crowd, and a few subtle wipes of tears from leathered faces, she is doing a wonderful job.

A little before 4:00 PM, we board our buses to be driven back to our resort. The evening will hold more food and entertainment and activities intended to thank everyone for their donations and participation. I am, and I suspect my silent bus mates are, completely cognizant of the fact that we have just seen the high point of the event. As the bus rolls down the highway, The Home Depot branded hardhat perched on my knee, I feel a much stronger sense of community, a much more direct connection. I look at my grimy hands realizing that for one day under a brilliant Arizona sky, they were instrumental in building a dream for a family. I glance up a row to my left and catch my breakfast mate, and career tradesman, Mike watching me. He gives me an enlightened smile.

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