40 Years of Building


Chapel’s Habitat Builders

“Habitat for Humanity International (HFH),” founded by Millard Fuller in Americus, Georgia, in 1976, is a non-profit that helps families build and improve places to call home, under the philosophy that affordable housing plays a crucial role in strong and stable communities. Chapel By The Sea Presbyterian Church (CBTS) at 100 Chapel Street on Fort Myers Beach, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its “Habitat Builders” chapter of HFH, though its work of providing housing for those less fortunate far predates its parent organization!

“CBTS was instrumental to bringing HFH to Lee County, but we long preceded it,” explained Tom Kelly, along with Tom Means and Gerry Trantina. “In the 1950s, migrant farmers working in the gladiolus fields in Fort Myers lived in dire poverty, so CBTS worked with the Lee County Mission Board to secure a federal housing grant to construct 40 homes in the Harlem Heights neighborhood. This continued through 1979, when the federal grants ended, and CBTS shifted over to the three-year-old HFH. To strengthen this new alliance, CBTS invited Mr. Fuller to preach here in February 1980 and over 1,000 people attended his presentation, with Lee County’s first HFH home completed with the assistance of the CBTS Habitat Builders that November and we continue that work through today.”

Habitat Builders

Habitat Builders working on a Habitat for Humanity home. Photo courtesy of Gerry Trantina.

“I have been involved with Habitat Builders for about nine years now; I am in my 50s, so that makes me one of the youngest members,” laughed Tom Means. “We have people who volunteer with us who are well into their 80s and they come out almost every week to work with us, to provide homes for those in need in Lee and Hendry Counties.” “We’ve even had a man in his 90s join us, to do primer on windows,” added Gerry. “Our team is made up of people who are old enough to be retired from their careers, but too young to be retired from making a contribution!”

Means explained that Habitat Builders starts to work each Thursday mid-November through March, meeting in the CBTS parking lot at 7:30 a.m. We bus together to the work site and return at 3:30 p.m., taking along with us our lunch, snacks and drinks. In the early part of the season, generally 4 to 6 of us volunteer, but by the high point, like now, that expands to 12 to 15.” “We primarily install vinyl siding, soffit and fascia on the exterior of the homes, accessorizing and a variety of other duties,” added Kelly. “To date, HFH constructed over 1,300 affordable homes in Lee and Hendry Counties. Last year, we worked on 55 homes and will do more than another 50 this year.”

“We have a group of highly motivated people,” said Means. “Because of our decades-long years of experience, HFH staff very rarely has to supervise our team, and that is a big time-saving advantage to them. The expertise in our group ranges from none at all to construction experts, but if you are a newbie, don’t worry because after a few hours with us, you will be an expert too; we can have you hanging siding in five minutes, as it is not hard to learn! We are an easy group to work with and love to pass along our knowledge to one-another.” Gerry added, “We can now entirely side a house in as quick as two days, and sometimes even less if we have a large enough turnout.” By doing the siding on a house, Tom Kelly noted, “we save about $5,000 in construction costs on each home. When you do roughly 50 houses a year, that really adds up.”

“You do not need to be a member of CBTS to join Habitat Builders, stated Means. “I actually got started with the group back when I lived at the Woodsmoke Camping Resort on US 41 and we still have four guys from Woodsmoke who show up every week.” Kelly said, “Last year, our 23 volunteers contributed 1,441 volunteer hours and that is about normal, as we tend to end up with somewhere between 1,400 to 1,500 hours, though some seasons can be as high as 1,800. Habitat Builders members do as few as 75 hours and up to 132. When you consider that a full-time employee is just a bit over 2,000 hours-a-year, we make quite a contribution.” “The bottom line is that we can always use more people,” said Gerry. “You don’t even have to know how to swing a hammer; just put the nail in place and someone else will hit it!”

Harlem Heights & 40th Anniversary

The three gentlemen are particularly excited about a new project in the Harlem Heights neighborhood that is to begin in April, to construct 144 homes on 20 acres. “We hope to be working on these next season,” noted Gerry. “What is great about that is Harlem Heights is where Habitat Builders started all those decades ago, as well as we will no longer have to travel all the way out to Lehigh Acres to help out!” “Remember that these houses are not free to the family for whom we build them,” added Kelly. “They have 30-year mortgages, though these are interest-free, with their payments based on the appraisal of the other homes in the neighborhood, as well as 40% of the salaries of the future homeowners.”

CBTS will commemorate the 40th anniversary of Habitat Builders with a luncheon in Silver Hall on Sunday, March 15, following its 10 a.m. worship service. “Habitat Builders will be the topic of the ‘Minute for Ministry’ at each worship service that weekend, explaining how we go above and beyond over the past four decades and longer,” said Tom Means. “Then in Silver Hall, in addition to a luncheon, we will set up tables and displays that highlight the work that we do, so that people can see how we make a positive difference, including a presentation by the local HFH Chief Executive Officer. We will not only be recruiting new members but will accept contributions as well to purchase more construction materials, so it will be ‘Habitat Sunday’ from beginning to end, with everything you need to know about Habitat Builders and HFH. You can donate to all levels, from a few dollars to a few thousand, and Gerry and his wife Sharon have even donated three total houses!” continued Means. “If you would like to learn more about volunteering with us but cannot attend on March 15, give me a call at 586-915-0621.”

Like Christmas Morning

As for Kelly, Means & Trantina, each gets personal rewards from Habitat Builders in different ways. “I like seeing a home progress from the ground up,” related Means. “These houses are not just something we throw up in a haphazard manner but are so beautiful that you yourself would be proud to live in one, as there is no better feeling than having a wonderful house to call your home. I look forward to each and every Thursday because not only do we provide a basic human need that everyone aspires to have, but the people we volunteer with are terrific.”

The finished product: “Like Christmas Morning!” Photo courtesy of Gerry Trantina.

“For me, it is when you see the finished product,” Gerry reflected. “Every so often, when we are at the construction site, we get to meet the future homeowner and you see how happy they are and get to learn a little bit about their life and how excited they are to watch us working on their own home that they will own, and that becomes very special, when you can place a face to the house! The other great thing for me is the people you get to know in the Habitat Builders group, because when you work with the same people week in and week out, you develop great friendships and many are now my best friends, with our wives even arranging social outings. I encourage everyone to come out and join us, because every aspect of Habitat Builders is a tremendous experience.”

To Tom Kelly, “it is the great team, with my reward being twofold: One is that when we complete a house, you get to look back and say, ‘we did that,’ as that accomplishment feeds my ego! That personal satisfaction is just a part of my personality. Second, when I was in my work career, I did that for so many hours that I did not even spend as much time with my family as I should have, but now that I am in retirement, God gave me this opportunity to give back to someone else less fortunate than I am. You learn new skills, meet new friends, give back, and all of those things change you for the better, so when you see the finished product and know that it will be the home for some good family, it is like Christmas morning and we all feel like little kids again!”