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Habitat for Humanity Care-a-Vanners Tom and Diane Hinkle just returned to Prineville from California after replacing homes destroyed by wildfire

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY TOM HINKLE - Tom and Diane Hinkle joined three other couples to help complete houses that will replace ones burned down in the Clear Lake, California, area last October. Tom is fourth from the left and Diane is the woman wearing glasses in the foreground.

California's Clear Lake is situated about 100 miles northwest of Sacramento and surrounded by small communities and rural neighborhoods.

Last October, a wildfire ripped through the area, devastating around 150 homes.

It was at the scene of this destruction that local couple Tom and Diane Hinkle spent the past few weeks helping rebuild what the fire had destroyed one year earlier.

Oftentimes after a fire rages through an area, consuming homes, structures and landscape, people will see news photos of charred homes and trees among a scorched and blackened backdrop. But Tom Hinkle was greeted with a different scene as he and his wife made the trek to Clear Lake.

"When we came down the mountains around Mt. Shasta, we went through a town that when you look down on it, there was nothing but new construction. The town was gone, but the devastation wasn't – except that there were no trees. It was all brand new houses."

And soon, the couple would help add to that new landscape of newly built homes.

The Hinkles, both 71, have lived in Prineville for five years. They were introduced to Care-a-Vanners, a subset of Habitat for Humanity, about six years ago during a trip to some sand dunes in Indiana, just south of Lake Michigan. There, they struck up a conversation with a gentleman who told them about the group, and how they head to communities devastated by wildfire, tornados and other disasters to help rebuild homes.

The homes are not provided free of charge to recipients, but as long as they are employed, they are asked to make payments on a mortgage that is substantially less expensive because, thanks to volunteer work, labor costs are not part of the equation.

"He told us about it and we said, 'OK, maybe when we retire,'" Hinkle remembers. "We retired a couple years later and got involved in Kentucky with a couple of tornado disaster builds."

The couple never looked back, and Hinkle estimates that he and his wife have worked on 25 to 30 homes throughout the country.

Hinkle spent most of his career as the owner of a small manufacturing business in Wisconsin. During those 30 years in what he called a woodworking environment, he became pretty familiar with the tools involved in building a home. But the actual work involved with building a home was something the couple had to learn as they volunteered and took on Care-a-Vanner projects. And they weren't alone.

"One of the aims of Habitat is to pass on the knowledge and the skills of how to build a house to the recipients and the volunteers," Hinkle explained. "We do a little bit of everything, which is virtually true of all Care-a-Vanners and all Habitat volunteers. … I have learned a lot."

The Hinkles joined three other couples during the recent Clear Lake project, helping restore two homes. And though they work hard, they try to mix in some fun time and keep the hours a bit lighter than full-time construction workers might.

"What we do is we take a week to get down there and see the country and play around," he said, "and then we do the build, and we play around some more, then we come home."

And when they're working?

"It's old people hours," Hinkle quips. "We worked from 8 a.m. to around 3 p.m."

For the Hinkles, completing the work and helping provide people who have lost a home with a new roof over their heads is always satisfying. Tom acknowledges that they are rarely around for the home dedication when the owner receives the keys, but the few times he has been, it has been an emotional experience.

He added that hearing people say thank you makes the work even more rewarding, and he still remembers the first time it happened.

"We were in Kentucky where a tornado had wiped out 500 homes in a town," he recalls. "The day we were getting ready to leave, we stopped at a gas station. I had my Habitat shirt on. The gal behind the counter asked me a few questions and then thanked me from the bottom of her heart, with tears in her eyes. I had never experienced something like that. It gets to you."

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