July 31

4 square inches of mercy

Several people have asked me to describe the work we did with Appalachian Service Project last week so here’s a summary of my experience.

The Woman Card

We committed to this project last fall and have gone to meetings regularly to train and prepare for the week. Men and women lead the teams and many of the women are very experienced. Some of the men who have done this for many years were happy and supportive of the construction education I had in grad school, my woodworking experience and my time spent managing a variety of construction projects. Others seem to feel that it was their job to put me in my place. Some said that I’d probably assigned painting jobs and wouldn’t be using power tools. Other suggested that I would be in over my head. One actually said to me the day we left, “I’m sure glad I’m not on your team.” Another time in a meeting I asked a very appropriate construction management question and one of the men started laughing. I quickly spotted the men and women who I thought could be helpful and supportive and avoided those who were disrespectful. Sophie later commented that she saw one man tell a woman that she couldn’t carry equipment because she was a woman. Yeah, that woman card thing goes beyond equal wages.

 The Project

We were told that during the week we would be completing some work on an updated bathroom/laundry inside a trailer and stabilizing an 8’x24’ wooden porch attached to the trailer. The ASP staff person, an 18 yr old college student gave us a single sheet of paper with no drawings that sentence by sentence explained how we were supposed to stabilize the porch. “Whatever you do don’t take down the porch, just stabilize it,” we were told. I had thought that someone with more experience than an 18 year old Creative Writing major would be supervising the project and be available to make judgment calls. THAT was a shocker, especially when there were structural issues involved.

The porch was made of composite underlayment, a cheap type of wood sheeting that is intended for use inside under carpeting. Surrounding the porch to keep critters out were 2 layers of sheet metal. It seemed straightforward. We’d remove any rot, screw in bracing between the joists that supported the porch and replace the floorboards. The trailer was on an extremely steep slope with a driveway that was so dangerous, that we forbade everyone but Bill who was driving to be in the van as it backed down the driveway. The driveway was about one foot wider than the van with a 75’ drop on one side and a 2’ gulley on the other. At the end of every day, I would shout directions “wheel to the left, straighten out” as Bill backed the van down the driveway, inch by inch.


At a glance, the massive sheet of steel that served as the canopy of the porch was held up by 5 thin aluminum units that were 1” thick. It was unclear how the canopy was attached to the trailer. The downspout that directed stormwater was missing so rain fell directly around the corner posts of the porch, greatly contributing to the rot. There was another hose coming from the ground that was the waste water from the washing machine that also pooled water around the base of the porch. We fixed both of these conditions to divert water away from the porch.

We removed the surrounding sheet metal expecting to begin pulling off the rot and decking at once. As we pulled off the metal we realized that about half of the porch had been destroyed by termites and/or rot. ASP staff had not vetted the project to determine its safety despite having had another volunteer fall through a rotted area of the bedroom floor of the same trailer just days before. Suddenly Bill realized that 3 ½ of the 5 supports for the porch were attached to wood that was so weak, you could pull it off by the handful. Although I tried to remain calm, there were sirens going off in my head. In short, the entire weight of the canopy wide enough to shelter 3 cars, was being held up by 3 rusted nails in 4 sq inches of termite-ridden wood. Bill quickly grabbed the only lumber on the site, which happened to be 2x4s, and began making supports to prevent the canopy from crashing down. We tried to call the ASP staff but no one came for hours. Later I was given an ASP construction manual but it did not address how to deal with shoring up rotting wood. We just did as much bracing as we could.

Building Supports

There was no time to waste. It was 95 degrees and 60% humidity. We needed to dig 11 18” deep holes in rocky clay soil. We were dripping in sweat but were trying to move quickly to build a new frame before a gust of wind sent the canopy crashing down on us. I asked the head ASP staffer for scaffolding to support the canopy and pleaded that he was endangering the teens and us. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Every project has risks.” I was furious but tried to remain calm. I told him that I didn’t feel that people installed flooring or painting were in the same danger we were in. The teens, who had expected easier tasks like painting or applying trim, were not enthusiastic about having to dig holes 18” deep for the new posts that would support the porch and were not interested in learning construction methods. It was a battle to keep them motivated for the first couple of days. We had numerous behavioral problems with some of them, impulse control being among them. Some were more interested in socializing or wandering off the jobsite than helping us get the frame rebuilt. Meanwhile we were trying to demolish small sections of the porch and stabilize them before we removed any additional material. I explained to the kids that it was like a game of Jenga in which you couldn’t remove too much or it would all come crashing down. Most of the kids seemed oblivious to the dangers and the urgency to get the work done. It became clear that underneath the porch in some places the only supports were leaning piles of cinder blocks.

The Greek Chorus

Every time I saw the 3 rusty nails in the termite-infested wood that were holding up the canopy I heard the Greek chorus of the parents of the crew kids and the mother of the teen who lived in the trailer. The Greek Chorus questioned whether we should take all of the kids off the site until we find a better way to stabilize the roof. “Are those 2x4s enough?” they chanted. “We entrusted our children to you.” “Why didn’t you take structural engineering?” “Don’t let our children get hurt.” Meanwhile the widow’s voice begged me not to abandon her and to fix the dangerous conditions. The Greek Chorus was particularly active at night as I lay on my Ridgerest on the gymnasium floor fighting off the recurring vision of the temporary support posts being knocked over carelessly as some of the teens took endless selfies or marveled at the various insects discovered during demo. While the old guys snored on the other side of the gym, the Greek Chorus would question whether I was doing the right thing and asking me how I was going live with myself if the canopy collapsed on one of their children. I worried about our daughter and our livelihood if it fell on one of us. At one point when we discovered a poisonous brown recluse spider on one of the old deck boards, the Greek Chorus of parents reminded me that although brown recluse spiders rarely bite people there were two people on our crew of 7 who had been bitten by one before. “Do you even remember where the hospital is? You don’t have a phone signal to get Google Maps!” All three of us adult leaders we discovered later had nightmares at night worrying about that canopy.

Board by Board

For 2 ½ days we methodically removed small sections of the porch, reinforced each joist and then removed a bit more. It would have been easier and safer to remove the whole porch but ASP felt that there wasn’t time. We were not going to win that argument and had to do it their way. The behavioral problems among some of the teens wore us down but one board, one screw at a time we built a strong frame that could support the canopy.

At night we’d return to the center and hear about the projects other teams were doing. One team was struggling with a hoarding situation that made it difficult to get the work done and with an owner who was being difficult. Our daughter’s team needed to get people up on the roof but it was steep and the rain was preventing them from progressing. Most were doing low-risk repairs like installing laminate flooring, mudding drywall and painting. I envied their lack of stress but at the same time was glad that I was able to put my education and work experience to such good use.

“We’ll be in the Hudson”

On Wednesday morning on the long, twisty ride to the jobsite I explained to the teens that we would be stabilizing the canopy that day and transferring the weight of the canopy from the rotted wood to the new frame. “We’re landing the plane today,” is how I put it so I asked them to be especially cautious and asked for no music so we could focus. Around 11:30, I asked Bill if we were ready. At that moment the famous phrase uttered by Captain Sullenberger to the air traffic controllers when he was starting to make an emergency landing a few years ago popped into my head. “We’ll be in the Hudson,” he had said calmly. Bill agreed we were ready. “Let’s do it,” he said. We asked all of the kids to move away from the canopy while we cautiously pulled out the 3 nails one at a time that attached the canopy to the old wood and carefully slid the braces onto the new wood frame. Of the 7 on the team 4 of us were actively focused on this task as was the owner’s daughter who was watching from inside the trailer. The other three teens were chatting, snacking and laughing oblivious to the tension we felt.

We screwed in all of the braces, removed the temporary supports and rejoiced that nothing moved. I exhaled deeply for the first time in days. The Greek Chorus was silent. It’s hard to describe the relief I felt. I slept the whole night.

 Putting out the welcome mat

Rain and thunder came but with the canopy stable we were able to work safely as we finished screwing the decking in and building the steps. I violated ASP standards that call for steep, cheaper stairs and designed a staircase that would be more gentle, safer and landed next to the concrete driveway so on rainy days the mom and daughter wouldn’t have to walk through mud to enter their trailer. We made a few other changes to the property to divert rainwater away from the deck and to tidy up the roofing repairs made by the previous week’s team.

We cheered as the daughter stepped onto the porch for the first time and walked down the new stairs. “My momma’s gonna cry when she sees this. I can’t wait to see her face when she gets home.” The teens gave her a new welcome mat and a giftcard to Walmart with cash leftover from our budget. We stood in a circle praying and gave thanks for having completed the project safely and for having had fun getting to know this family.

The night before Bill and I had picked up the mother and the daughter who lack any form of transportation for an ASP-sponsored dinner. As we dropped them off after the dinner, we stood next to the van and chatted for a while. Puffy clouds of fog settled in among the treetops as darkness moved in and we could hear the woodland symphony of bullfrogs in the nearby creek, birds in the treetops and all manner of insects chirping. Bill commented on how wonderful the sounds were. “That’s what we love to do at night,” said the mom. “We just like to sit out on the porch and listen to all the sounds.”