Natchez Rotary members help build 25th Habitat for Humanity house

Published 2:48 pm Monday, July 31, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Handing the keys to a Habitat for Humanity house to its new owner is the payoff for Duncan McFarlane and other long-time, dedicated volunteers in Natchez.

Natchez Habitat for Humanity is in the process of constructing its 25th house in Natchez, and members of The Rotary Club of Natchez were at the location of the home on Old Washington Road Saturday, volunteering to help with the construction of the house.

“The family gets real emotional the day we call them and tell them they are going to get a house. And they get real emotional the day we hand them the keys,” McFarlane said. “It’s emotional for us, too. Why do you think I’m out here in 99-degree weather if not for some kind of payoff at the end?”

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McFarlane, a Natchez Habitat board member, and Andrew Calvit, who is Natchez Habitat president, led the way on Saturday, instructing volunteers — about 15 in all — on tasks involved in the construction.

Calvit has volunteered his time on the construction of all 25 Natchez Habitat houses. The current build is the 18th for McFarlane in Natchez.

“I was living in Atlanta, which is where Habitat for Humanity is headquartered. I called them one day to see if I could help. They said, ‘No. We have too much help building houses. You can come help us file papers if you want.’ Well, I didn’t want to do that,” McFarlane said.

A year later, McFarlane moved back home to Natchez and called the Natchez chapter of Habitat and asked the same question, “Could he help?”

“I went to my first board meeting, and they put me on the board,” he said.

McFarlane’s father was a contractor, but he said he didn’t learn real construction skills until he began volunteering for Habitat.

“I worked with my father — I was more of a go-for — but I was around it all the time. I am skilled now, though,” he said.

Calvit worked for the gas company and became familiar with Habitat through his job.

“We started donating water heaters, and I would volunteer to install the water heater,” Calvit said. “I installed the water heater in houses one, two, three and four. On the fifth house, I went to install the water heater, and Buddy Rayne was there working on the house by himself. I used to fish and hunt on the weekends, but I stopped fishing and hunting and went full out on house number five.

“I could paint and plumb, but I really wanted to learn how to do carpentry work,” Calvit said. “We bought our first nail gun on house five. We got it out, and Buddy told me to try it out. I pulled the trigger, and it went, ‘Pow Pow Pow! Three or four nails came out right quick. Buddy said, ‘That thing must be a Democrat, wasting all those nails!’ Turns out, there was a quick trigger and a bump trigger. We didn’t know how it worked. I’ve learned a lot since then.”

Calvit uses his skills to maintain a couple of rental houses he owns.

Among the volunteers Saturday at the Habitat House were an architect, a computer and technology expert and an expert cabinetmaker.

Richard Branyan, a Rotarian who owns Lower Lodge Antiques in downtown Natchez, studied architecture and became a cabinetmaker. Branyan is a frequent Habitat for Humanity volunteer.

“Carpentry and cabinet making are not really related,” Branyan said.

Rotarian Ben Hillyer, who worked for The Natchez Democrat for more than 20 years, now works for the newspaper’s parent company in its digital division. Hillyer is an architect and, despite not working in that field on a daily basis, he still keeps his license. He said carpentry does not require the finish work and precision that cabinet making requires.

Rotarian Curtis Moroney was volunteering his skills building the Habitat house Saturday. His expertise is in computers and computer networking.

Rotarian Pat Burns volunteered his carpentry skills on Saturday. His wife, Connie, is one of the original Habitat Natchez founders and is in charge of family selection.

An owner was selected for the 25th Habitat house in Natchez, but has since lost her job. A new family will be chosen, McFarlane said.

“Normally, the owner would be here. They have to put in 250 hours of sweat equity into the home,” he said.

“This is not a giveaway program,” Calvit said. “They have to pay for this house, and they have to work. They pay the principal on the loan, but not the interest.”

McFarlane said six of the original 24 Habitat homeowners in Natchez have paid off their mortgages.

“We have asked them, ‘Do you want to have a mortgage burning ceremony?’ All of them have said, ‘No! I don’t want all of my relatives to know I’m debt free.’ So, we’ve never had a mortgage burning ceremony,” McFarlane said.

The three-bedroom, two-bath home under construction is a design of Natchez Architect Johnny Waycaster.

“He designs our houses, and he does not charge us,” McFarlane said. The house has a total of 1,300 square feet.

“It comes with all the kitchen appliances, the washer and dryer and central air,” he said. “The boys and girls in the family will no longer have to share bedrooms.”

McFarlane said Habitat gets about 25 new applications for each new house build, which compete with “a drawer full” of previous applicants. Applicants may wait two or three years before a house is available for them to purchase.

It takes about a year for Natchez Habitat volunteers to construct a new house.

“We’ve done them in about 10 months, but it really depends on how many volunteers show up,” McFarlane said.

The largest Habitat house is located on Smith Street. Habitat has constructed 10 houses in a development on Smith and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets in Natchez.

“That area was nothing but weeds,” Calvit said. “Now it’s one of the best developments we have.”

McFarlane and Calvit said only one or two of the 24 Habitat homeowners here have turned out to be a disappointment.

“Once we sell it to them, we have no control over whether they cut the grass or park their cars in the front of the house,” McFarlane said.

“It takes time to change their mindset. They are no longer renting the house, but they had been used to calling the landlord when something was needed where they lived. It’s a big change for many of them,” Calvit said. “They have to learn how to solve problems at their own home.”