Watch a slideshow with photographs from the Amherst-Habitat Initiative celebration.
By William Sweet
For Amherst College, the recent completion a five-year Habitat For Humanity construction project on Stanley Street means a job well done. For Ashlee Cancio-Bello, it means coming home, and a little something more.
“Habitat is like love in action,” said Cancio-Bello, who now lives in one of the houses that the college helped make a reality.
Representatives of Amherst College, including President Biddy Martin, Amherst town officials, volunteers and representatives of Habitat for Humanity, gathered on Sept. 27 to celebrate the end of an effort first planned a decade ago. Because of one Amherst student’s vision and the work of many others taking up hammer and nail, families can come home to four appealing, energy-efficient homes in a quiet neighborhood that might otherwise have remained little more than an empty field owned by the college.
“It really has become a field of dreams,” said Kathy Perry, owner of one of the homes.
“See just how beautiful they are,” said James Brassord, Amherst College’s director of facilities, indicating the four homes at the afternoon celebration and tour. “They are light-filled, they are infinitely livable, they work together and engage the landscape in beautiful ways, and I think we can really draw inspiration from the way the community came together and made that happen.”
“I’m delighted to thank all of you for the partnership that has yielded this beautiful housing,” said Martin, who assumed her presidential duties just as this project wrapped up. “I hope those of you who live in these really beautifully designed dwellings enjoy them for a very, very long time.”
“It’s kind of unbelievable to me that they have accomplished so much,” said James Patchett ’02, who first brought the idea of an Amherst-initiated Habitat build a decade ago to Tom Gerety, then president of the college. Patchett graduated before a single nail was struck, but that didn’t keep participants from crediting him as the initial force behind the effort. He could not make it to the ceremony on Monday.
Patchett, now a vice president for the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs (which funds affordable housing), was editor in chief of The Amherst Student and passionate about the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. He’d had some involvement with Habitat and had experienced how his fellow Amherst students, who often didn’t have cars, could not commit to Habitat builds in other towns. So why not bring Habitat closer to the college?
“Students were always interested, until they heard it would be in Greenfield on a Saturday. We had plenty of labor, but we really lacked places [in Amherst] to put those houses,” Patchett said. “It occurred to us the largest landowner in the Amherst area was Amherst College.”
By the time Patchett and M.J. Adams, executive director for the Pioneer Valley chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and others went to see Gerety, they had proposals for three different sites of college-owned land not currently in use.
“We did a whole bunch of homework before we went to anybody,” said Patchett. “Gerety was intrigued, [and] Jim [Brassord] took it up as his cause.”
In exchange for the promise of the land and the student labor, Brassord said, Amherst College required some tweaks to the Habitat projects. The homes would be built to a schedule more in keeping with the academic calendar. An Amherst architectural firm, Kuhn Riddle Architects, donated design services and was one in a long list of businesses that donated materials or services. And the buildings would be designed “green,” having solar panels, for instance. “Green design was very important to me, and that it not just be cookie-cutter,” Brassord said. “We wanted to demonstrate that inspiring design isn’t more costly, that green design is not out of reach for low-income housing.”
Once the college administration donated the land, “it became the rest of the community’s job to step up to the same plate with Amherst College,” said Adams. “We are very appreciative to the volunteers, the number of Amherst College students who came out in the middle of the night.” Dean of Students Allen Hart, then dean of new students, was personally in charge of the 2 to 5 a.m. shift at the 2006 start of construction.
“Every fall we had this kickoff with the dawn-to-dusk [building session],” said Adams, joking that “I won’t know what to do with myself this fall.”
“Know that you really have left a piece of your heart here in the homes of these families,” she told the volunteers.
According to Molly Mead, director of the college’s Center for Community Engagement, the CCE ultimately enlisted athletic teams in order to have a consistent pool of volunteers.
Phyllis Keenan, a part-time math instructor at Greenfield Community College who took up residence in the fourth and last home this summer, recalled the Tuesdays and Thursdays when the Amherst students would arrive to help build. “I met people who would come who’d never worked on a structure, and left with some skill,” she said. “I remember a group who came and didn’t even know how to hold a hammer or how to use a tape measure or a saw, and we reframed all the windows together.”
Project volunteers, who were presented with golden hammer pins, responded with modesty during the tour of the homes.
“I hear you did a lot of work here,” Martin said to Charles Klem’56, one of the project’s work captains who, according to Brassord, “put in countless hours” whipping the Amherst students into shape as homebuilders.
“Oh, I just took a lot of naps here,” Klem kidded the president.
As Hart and Dean of the Faculty Gregory S. Call admired her kitchen, Cancio-Bello told them “it was so generous” of the college to give the land.
“We couldn’t imagine a better use of it,” Call said.