Habitat for Humanity brings young builders to 15-house project in north Portland

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Fatimah Us'Sutteri helps paint walls in a new house during a volunteer build day with Habitat for Humanity in Portland's Cully neighborhood. Us'Sutteri, a high school senior from Bethany, was one of a small group of students lending a hand to the project.Portland residents are still feeling the squeeze from a lack of affordable housing in the city, but with the help of a few students, Habitat for Humanity is providing 15 families with a path to homeownership.

On a rainy Friday afternoon in April, students from Oregon Connections Academy donned hard hats and delved into painting and flooring projects at a housing complex in Northeast Portland.

The 15-unit construction site is the newest residential addition to the Cully neighborhood and part of a Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

It's one of three current home construction projects Habitat for Humanity has around the Portland metro area.

On site, Nathan Lommasson, site manager, trudged through the mud as he made his way to a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath house under construction. "Everything you see right now was built by a volunteer," he said, pointing to stairs, doors and flooring.

Across Multnomah County, Habitat for Humanity has worked to make home ownership accessible to low-income, working families, using largely volunteer labor. In the organization's Portland/Metro East region, where homes are overwhelmingly owned by white residents, an estimated 75 percent of families served are people of color, according to a homeownership report published by Habitat for Humanity.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Madison Beck lays flooring during a Habitat for Humanity event in the Cully neighborhood.Homeowners must put in 300 hours of their own "sweat equity" and in exchange are guaranteed a monthly mortgage payment that doesn't exceed 30 percent of their household income.

Lommasson ascended the stairs in the nearly complete home at the corner of Northeast 57th Avenue and Killingsworth Street, where he found Camille Fox and Madison Beck hovered over a section of flooring near a laundry closet.

Fox and Beck are students at Oregon Connections Academy, a statewide online charter school. Growing up with a carpenter father, Fox found herself in somewhat familiar territory April 5, but the student volunteer said she still faced a number of firsts.

"I've done hands-on stuff with my own house, but nothing like this," the sophomore noted, as she and Beck measured and snapped pieces of vinyl tile into place. "Probably the most difficult thing was working out the measurements for the really intricate areas in the closets."

Across the hallway, Fatimah Us'Sutteri guided a paint roller across a bedroom wall. The Bethany student is planning to go into the medical sciences field, but the project was a welcome departure from her typical volunteer work with a regional hospital.

"This is just really rewarding," Us'Sutteri said. "When I saw this project where we could help people, I signed up."

The volunteer stint marked her first time working on a house.

For Beck, who's about to finish her last year of high school at Oregon Connections Academy, the day's work was integrated into her senior project, but it was also a good segue into her future ambitions. Beck said she wants to pursue AmeriCorps after high school.

"I'm really interested in volunteer work," she said.

Before then, she'll have her work cut out for her with a personal project she's about to tackle.

"I'm working on my own project, which is restoring a 1975 14-foot trailer," the teen said. "I'm interested in this kind of thing. I need to rip out the floor and cabinets and put the door frame up again."

Friday's volunteer gig was Beck's first foray into carpentry.

Students at the academy attend several educational field trips each year, but this is the first time they've rolled up their sleeves to help build homes. The Cully project will see about half of the homes completed this summer.

"This was just something I wanted to coordinate," Shelly Shumpert, a teacher with Oregon Connections Academy, said as she watched students in hard hats work in each room. "I'm a strong believer in building citizenship within students and giving back to the community."

Shumpert said part of her goal as an instructor is to equip her students with "real life skills" and help them explore possible career paths.

Outside, a white board posted near a makeshift break room lists the names and assignments for each student builder on site that day, only the names are those of superheroes. It seems fitting, considering the impact.

"It's gonna make somebody's life basically," Fox said of the project she embarked on. "They're going to have a home for their kids and come home to a place after work and relax. It's such a privilege."

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