New Year’s Day – 2006 – we kicked off the year with a very special family gathering at the local Cracker Barrel Restaurant. Lucille’s mother (Waterbury Connecticut's New Year’s Baby of 1926) turned 80 years young this year. Cracker Barrel doesn’t take reservations but they did a great job of seating the thirteen of us together in about 30 minutes. Mom was joined by husband Jerry, sisters Florence and Lorraine, sister-in-law Eugenie and daughter Susan and her husband Ken, godson Richard, daughter Yvette and her husband Pat, Lucille and Larry, and son Roger. We enjoyed a tasty lunch, waited on by a fabulous gal who had the patience to deal with all of us. The Cracker Barrel staff surprised Mom with blackberry cobber alamode and sang happy birthday.
We then went back to the house and watched as she opened up her collection of 80 gifts gathered from family members far and wide. Afterwards, we had ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins plus brownies and custard pies that Lorraine had brought--we didn't starve.
One evening we drove out to longtime friends Rick and Eileen’s new home, near an inlet to Lake Poinsett enabling Rick to have a place to launch his airboats for his business, Grasshopper Airboat Rides. What a beautiful multi-story home they have with an almost 360 degree view of the lake. They promised a killer sunset from their porch and we were not disappointed. Rick grilled burgers and bratwursts and we enjoyed their company as well as visiting with their friends Ron and Jim and Rick’s parents.
We had stayed put for a month and our stay in the Palm Bay area was at an end – time to move on. Our next destination, Vero Beach, was only about 80 miles away so it was an easy ride. The next two weeks were spent working with the Indian River Habitat for Humanity affiliate, located in Gifford, just north of Vero Beach. The affiliate is located on a large tract of land that includes their offices, several warehouses, a huge Home Center (more on that later) and a campground with full hookups for their volunteers, with room for about 15 rigs. Our team leaders, Tom and Rosalie (Ro), greeted us and showed us where to park. Our RV Care-A-Vanner group for this build consisted of nine rigs. Besides Tom and Ro, we met Lou and Ann, Art and Mary Ann, Laurent and Barb, Clay and Shirley, John and Raelene, Bob and Linda, and George and Cindy. Also parked in the ‘campground’ are some former FEMA travel trailers that are available to those that want to help in the area but don’t have an RV. Orie was our neighbor staying in one of these trailers.
We had a short get-to-know you meeting at Tom and Ro’s rig Sunday afternoon, then walked over to the Habitat office for a welcome BBQ dinner and met Andy Boles, Executive Director of the Indian River affiliate, and some of his staff. After dinner, there was a nice slide presentation on the local affiliate. Surprising news…Whirlpool donates all the major appliances for all Habitat builds in the U.S. (fridges, stoves, microwaves and dishwashers)– wow!
A little bit about this affiliate, which we called Vero Beach because of its proximity to that city. When we first started doing Habitat builds, we were told that they would all be different. Some are big, some are small, some are better organized and funded than others, but they all have the same goal – to help eliminate poverty housing. Vero Beach’s is a very well supported and funded affiliate, thanks to the local community, the most prosperous of which live on island property along A1A. At least one of the churches in that area as well as a subdivision each totally fund the building of one house, including all materials and labor – annually! That’s about $50,000 in materials and all the labor necessary to build a house from the slab up – impressive.
About the Home Center (in some places called a ReStore)…. Some of the community residents donate rooms of furniture when they redecorate, as well as other high-dollar items, as do rental condos that change out their décor annually. The recent hurricanes also generated a large amount of donated items, still in good condition. All these donations, in addition to surplus building materials, stock the Home Center, in a showroom that is at least 10,000 square feet. The volunteers working at the Home Center do a great job of arranging rooms full of furniture throughout the showroom, similar to what is seen at furniture stores. The Home Center is open to the public, four days a week, and has been so successful since its opening in August of 2005 that proceeds from sales since then have purchased enough building materials for four houses – amazing!
Between this success and generous support from the community, they have set a goal of building 30 houses by the end of their fiscal year in June. When we were there, 22 of those houses were in various stages of completion.
As mentioned earlier, all Habitat builds are different. We reported for work at 7:45 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays (Mondays we spent helping organize the warehouses and Home Center, as well as building a lounge for the Care-A-Vanners, complete with showers, washer and dryer). Because there are so many homes in progress, the four construction supervisors daily review a list of tasks that have to be done. Jobs were assigned amongst the Care-A-Vanners, future homeowners, and local volunteers, and we’d set off in different directions. The Habitat homes are located in their own subdivision, on which we were working the second out of three phases. On the other two builds we’ve been on, our Care-A-Vanner team primarily worked on one house, so the jobs were varied and many. Because so many homes here are in various stages of construction, we helped wherever help was needed the most. Over the course of our stay here, Larry spent most of his time on several different roofs and Lucille helped paint the interiors of several houses with two mornings spent learning how to lay vinyl tile. We weren’t sure if our group was making much of an impact – two weeks’ worth of work spread out over so many houses isn’t as visible as a single house. But Woody, the lead supervisor, reassured us all that we helped several homes get closer to completion.
We did miss getting to know our team members better while working because we were so spread out--we tended to work in smaller clusters. Raelene and Lucille paired off working in the warehouse one day, helping to build racks to hold windows and doors, made out of pallets and scrap wood. We were so proud of our rack and how quickly we had it built only to have our balloon burst when someone mentioned the pallet was upside down! Who knew that pallets have an up-side and a down-side??? We all had a great laugh over that and improvised to fix our glitch. Larry, Barb, Laurent and Bob made a great roofing team, while Lucille was often seen wielding a paintbrush with Linda, Raelene and Ann.
Tom and Ro arranged some get-togethers – a hot dog/ice cream social one night, enjoying an all-you-can-eat fish fry at the Old Town Café, and game nights in between. When we left after two weeks, we made many more new friends that we hope to meet again down the road and hopefully at future builds. We also met some memorable homeowners and family members helping with the required sweat equity. Grandparents Phyllis and Trevor were helping granddaughter and future homeowner Krissie earn her hours. We all had such a great time together painting in one of the houses that Phyllis and Krissie came back to help us finish on our last day, even though local volunteers don’t usually work on Fridays. Phyllis can paint a ceiling like no one else can, so the house was done by lunchtime.
One Saturday, we drove back up to Palm Bay to visit with Lucille’s parents and cousin Marcel, whom we hadn’t seen in over a dozen years. Marcel flew down from Rhode Island and was staying with aunts Lorraine and Florence in Tamarac. Lorraine arranged a trip to Palm Bay on a Saturday, our day off, so we could all visit. Marcel had us in stitches both at Cracker Barrel where we enjoyed lunch and back at the house – he hasn’t changed.
While in the Vero Beach area, we attended services at Christ By The Sea United Methodist Church on A1A. Our second Sunday there we were surprised to learn they had a special program. The Bethune-Cookman College’s Concert Chorale put on a concert – From Bach to Gospel. What awesome singers, both the group and the soloists, as well as the very talented musicians accompanying the group. They knocked our socks off with “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, then did “My God is A Rock”, which had been requested by some of the church attendees. This is the 15th year they put this program on, in conjunction with Martin Luther King’s Birthday. Most of the chorale group walked down on either side of the outside aisles for “My God is a Rock”, then finished up the program with “Order My Steps”. We sure wish we had known about this earlier to let the rest of the group know. Shirley and Clay were the only other lucky members of our group to experience this moving concert.
After a quick lunch that day, we invited Orie to join us when we went to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. We saw very few birds, primarily because the hurricanes had damaged their habitats. We then went over to Long Point County Park where we’ll be staying in March. While walking around in the park, we saw more birds there than at Pelican Island. Orie is a widower from South Dakota, volunteers frequently in his church and has helped Habitat elsewhere, but this was his first experience with working with RV Care-A-Vanners. We officially ‘adopted’ him as a Care-A-Vanner and enjoyed working and playing with him. Maybe we twisted his arm enough to get him RVing!
One evening, we attended the Volunteer/Donor Appreciation Night at the First Church of God, an annual event put on by the affiliate to honor both volunteers and donors and give awards. All of the Care-A-Vanners and Orie helped, either by making flower arrangements or helping to set up, serve, clean up. We were on the last shift and were kept hopping keeping the beverage containers filled as well as the food platters. We barely had time to eat ourselves and never did get to see the program.
Our last Friday there, part of our group went to dinner at the Patio Restaurant. They have an early bird special - $11.99 if you order from a certain menu before 5:30 p.m. You get soup, salad, entrée, dessert and a complimentary glass of house wine. The salad was great – served in a tortilla shell with diced beets – something not seen too often in a salad. The house dressing – a ranch-style Swiss cheese – was very good, as was the entire meal. Definitely a good place to eat if you are ever in the area – you get a lot of good food for your money.
On Saturday, we attended the Tampa RV Show with John and Raelene, with John doing the driving. We left our campground around 8 am, returning back around 9 pm, whupped. Luckily, the day was more cloudy than sunny but it was still warm. Raelene was surprised at how large the show was. We had walkie-talkies, so we wandered off in different directions, met for a quick lunch, and then went off separately again till it was time to leave the fairgrounds. We saw fellow Escapees Lon and Carolyn working at the Escapees’ booth, Larry and Marilyn, and Terry, while at the RV show.
The most unusual RV we saw was a triple-decker mobile estate, similar to what Robert DeNiro and Will Smith have. Pulled by an 18-wheeler until set up at a location, the 2nd story slides up with a deck on top. There are slide outs all around on the bottom level. We stood in line to go through but got out of line when we realized we had to listen to some type of sales pitch.
When we left on Sunday, we had an easy ride to Moore Haven, located on the southern side of Lake Okeechobee. We got to the campground mid-afternoon, snagging one of the two full hookup sites left. This campground is more of a fish/boating camp with several regulars there. After getting set up, we took off for a walk with Shelley on the Herbert Hoover Dike/Florida National Scenic Trail located behind the campground. We spotted a snake, several wading birds and a very small alligator sunning on a log.
One afternoon we went for a bike ride on the same portion of this trail, doing about eight miles round trip. In addition to the nice scenery, we spotted several vultures and wading birds. We stopped at a picnic table at our halfway point, located on the river, and spotted a 6-7’ alligator. On another day, we pedaled the paved portion, going about five miles one way before we turned around – the winds were picking up and the pedaling was getting tough. We did feel like we were flying back, though, with the wind at our backs. During this ride, we spotted a gator, a couple of sandhill cranes, a great blue heron and little blue heron, and lots of turkey vultures.
This RV park has several social get-togethers. Twice weekly is an ice cream social and one night, there is a very affordable dinner. Other nights, musicians are jamming and of course, game nights any evening. At our first ice cream social (as much as you can get in a bowl for a $1 – wotta deal!), we met Harry and Marie, snowbirds from Ontario. We sat with them again at the next ice cream social, meeting another couple, Harry and Mary. That was fun trying to keep their names straight, especially when we joined both couples for games on two different days, as well as sitting together at the weekly dinner (a spaghetti dinner, very tasty with home-made sauce and meatballs.)
Marie celebrated her birthday that week so we joined her, the two Harrys and Mary at the clubhouse for cake. That afternoon Harry and Mary taught us all a new board game called Sequence. We played gals against the guys, winning three out of the seven games, not bad for beginners.
Harry and Marie had told us about a nearby RV park, called the Glades, so on Sunday afternoon we took off in search of the park. We found it to be very nice with spacious sites, quite peaceful and lots of biking and walking trails within the park. We are making plans to meet Harry and Marie there next year. We hope to spend two months wintering there.
Our week of downtime was over and it was on to another Habitat ‘job’, this time at Habitat for Humanity located at Big Pine Key, servicing the Lower Keys and Key West. We got on the road around 9:00 am with an uneventful ride till we got to just a few miles north of Hwy 41 on Hwy 997. Traffic was backed up--we were told there was a head-on collision ahead, with about an hour wait for it to clear. Hwy 997 is a narrow two-lane road, with lane-width dirt shoulders. We watched 18-wheelers turn around, so we ended up doing the same. Turning around in such a small area wasn’t much fun but at least we didn’t get stuck. We detoured onto the Florida turnpike and after $9 in tolls, we finally got onto US 1, getting to Big Pine Key around 3 pm. In the meantime, Toni, the affiliate’s volunteer coordinator, called to tell us we’d be dry camping at a nearby church. They provide water and electric for about 20-30 rigs at the Habitat offices but had more volunteers parked there than they had room for, so they arranged overflow parking at the First Baptist Church. The church also has shower and toilet facilities available, which kept our own water and holding tank usage to a minimum.
This was to be yet another Habitat experience. Rather than new home building, we would help in disaster recovery and repairs (we knew this in advance). This affiliate was the first one to get involved in disaster recovery after Hurricane Georges in 1998, so they had a system in place after Hurricane Wilma blew through. The workweek is Monday through Friday, with a daily meeting at 8 a.m. at the affiliate, at which time we would get our assignments. Devotions would follow, and then off we’d go in several directions, some times as far south as Key West, 30 miles away.
Our first assignment was a doozy – along with four other volunteers, we helped a mentally distressed woman move her damaged belongings from her house to the street for the city to pick up. We only had the one day because January 31st was the last day the city would perform this service. Peter, the volunteer supervisor and assigner of jobs, told us it would be a dirty job. He wasn’t kidding. That was the absolutely, positively worst experience with Habitat or any other job we have ever, ever had! The place had been boarded up to keep the vandals out and will be razed sometime in the future. It is right on a canal off the ocean and got probably about four feet of water. Lots of mold was present so we wore masks. The smell was bad enough with the stuff we were tossing out but the worst was the fridge that had not been opened in three months and was fully stocked. When the guys brought it to the street, the door popped open and water flowed from it, and with it a stench we cannot describe. Several of us almost “lost our cookies”-- we had to walk away and get some fresh air. A neighbor rode by on his bike and almost got knocked down by the odor. Afterwards, he brought some tape to seal the door shut and sprayed the area down with bleach, which was a really big help. The stove was pretty potent too.
The only funny part of this happened at lunchtime when the two of us went off in search of a convenience store for a coke and a bathroom break. We were in line to pay and the woman behind us starting to complain about something stinking really bad, saying it smelled like dog s*** and cat s*** and questioned who had it on their shoes. We were the ‘stinkers’, with odor emanating from our clothing! We slunk out of there without admitting a thing. At the end of that day, the six of us rode back, in our truck, with the windows wide open, all 20 miles back to Big Pine Key. As soon as we got back, we took showers and immediately brought our clothes to the laundromat. Larry sprayed our shoes with bleach but they still smelled. Our jobs after the first day had to get better.
We did learn there would be an opening at the Habitat campground but we've decided to stay in dry camp. They must have used a shoe horn to get some of those rigs in those sites. We can’t imagine how we could maneuver our behemoth and truck in those cramped quarters. Apparently, they were unprepared for the influx of help but are glad to have it. We are currently parked in between the Methodist and Baptist churches - not far at all to go on Sunday!
Next month: We finish up our disaster help in Big Pine Key, move on to the military campground in Key West for a little R & R, head up to Camping World in Fort Myers for some minor work needed on the rig, then head back over to the East coast of Florida for most of March.