At 87, Bob Hesaltine has helped build 100 entire houses for families in need, but he hasn’t received a dime. He is the oldest volunteer in Sussex County Habitat for Humanity.
“I’m one of the regulars,” he said. “Most of the fellows my age are no longer [doing it]… We work two days a week. And I’ve been doing it 19 years.”
From the first Sussex house in 1994 to nearly a dozen annually now, Hesaltine works 12 hours weekly, now in Georgetown, where Habitat is building 22 houses in a neighborhood unfinished by the original developer.
The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity aims to eliminate substandard housing by repairing or building homes, allowing people to become homeowners at a low interest rate. Each family puts in at least 250 hours of “sweat equity” into building their house, so Hesaltine has built “over 100 houses with 100 families.”
“It’s nice to meet these families,” he said, noting that they still remember him when he works nearby. At the housing dedications, “You can just see them [turn] from a sad person … to beaming all over.”
One lady insisted on cooking every meal for the volunteers. Hesaltine and his buddy eventually bought her fruit trees for the dedication.
Every Habitation ceremony is special, as Habitat presents a house key and Bible to the family, and all volunteers place their hands on the house for a blessing.
The best kind of volunteer doesn’t have any construction experience, Hesaltine quipped, so they’ll do exactly as instructed. Hesaltine himself came with some background in construction. Besides a lifelong repair hobby, he joined a Pennsylvania steel mill as chief engineer and built his own house. Hesaltine later oversaw all construction, renovation, security as a hospital’s general service director. He retired from Alexandria, Va., to South Bethany in 1988.
Hesaltine joined Habitat after his wife passed away in 1994, but he would have joined anyway, he said.
He also took his passion on the road, paying his own airfare to Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Projects in Mexico, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, plus a Habitat build in Guatemala.
Sometimes that means driving 6.5 hours up a Latin American mountain to build simple concrete homes. All day, volunteers mixed “mortar volcanoes” of lime and water in piles of sand, and then they ate dinner under the stars.
“It’s hard work. It’s a great experience,” he said. “Once you get in on one of them, you want to come back.”
With tornado-like speed and intensity, these projects leave new houses standing in just one week. The house has doors, windows and roofing by dinnertime on the first day. Plumbing “elves” work overnight, followed by insulation and drywall and overnight finishing work. By Friday of a build week, new appliances are walking through the door of somebody’s soon-to-be new home.
Photographs in Hesaltine’s own house show him with former president Carter, families and volunteers, all with pride in their eyes and a new home behind them.
“Every build has been great, and we have a lot of fun,” he said, noting that he prefers an active vacation to sitting on the beach somewhere. “If you don’t have a good time, people aren’t going to show up for the next one.”
Hesaltine has also volunteered with CHEER, First State Community Action, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and his own Neighborhood Watch. He even dove into the frigid Atlantic for a Polar Bear Plunge.
The State of Delaware recognized his efforts in 2010, with the Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award.
“Bob’s gentle demeanor, lighthearted smile and vast knowledge give volunteers with little or no construction experience enough confidence to roof, tile and construct like a pro,” wrote nominator Liz Barron.
“You’ve got to be blessed or something. I feel good,” Hesaltine said. “I do everything,” from cabinets and tile to roofing — although, as of last year, “They don’t let me on the roof.”
Building friendships with the ‘regulars’
Hesaltine is the oldest of “the regulars” among Habitat’s volunteers. These dozen or so folks are mostly retired, but they’re so dedicated to Habitat that they barely pre-register to help on projects; everyone knows they’ll show up every week.
“We have a great bunch of regulars that come out. It’s like family,” said Hesaltine, who is known as “Little Bob” because he’s shorter than the other Bobs. “We go out on a Saturday, and it’s probably as much fun as fishing.”
“We have fun. That’s why we’re here,” said house leader Tony Etze, 67, of Lewes, adding that Hesaltine “keeps me going. I’m sure he keeps most of us going.”
“We know we can count on them on a regular basis, doing whatever is asked and oftentimes above and beyond that,” said volunteer coordinator Lyndsay Humphries. “Everybody in that group is pretty much 60 and over.”
Volunteers and Americorps workers build whether it’s icy cold or “about 98 [degrees] and you’re out here sweating your butt off,” said Michael Grafton, 62, of Milton.
“That’s what people don’t realize. We build year-round,” said Etze.
Their hard work is inspired by troubling tales of homes in disrepair, such as the house with no real windows in freezing weather or the woman who had to shower in sneakers because her septic system backed up. With more than 4,000 homes in Sussex County deemed unsafe, “My goal is to put us out of business,” Etze said.
“Just about every place we’ve gone, I think we improved it,” Hesaltine said.
“The conditions they live in are unbelievable,” said John Kaczor, 74, a former board member who’s been with Habitat about as long as Hesaltine.
Habitat’s mission asserts that everyone deserves the dignity of a safe and comfortable home, so Habitat houses in Sussex are built complete, with insulation, carpeting, laminate hardwood flooring, energy-efficient tankless hot water heaters, plus refrigerator, stove, washer and dryer — all donated or purchased at cost by Habitat.
Contractors still do certain parts of the work, including plumbing, electricity and drywall.
More than one of the “regulars” joked that their wives pushed them to get active.
“I sat behind a desk for 33 years. I wanted to get out and do something,” said Etze, who formerly worked in government.
“I like doing the work. I like helping people, time-to-time. We all do,” said Kaczor.
People also learn home repair and construction for their own benefit.
Grafton was a carpenter and did his homework, but “I learned a lot, and I’m still learning.”
Other volunteers have included an Army band member, sidings specialist, teacher, engineer, IBM executive or building truck axles. One Bridgeville woman even bicycled to Seaford every day, just to volunteer.
“They’re a pain,” Etze joked, making it clear he was just kidding.
The regulars are friends, going out for drinks or helping each other, from Kaczor’s addition to water damage in Hesaltine’s neighborhood after Hurricane Sandy. They’ve built Habitat’s own office and warehouse.
Originally, Sussex Habitat began with a phone and P.O. box. The volunteers carried their own tools, and “We didn’t have the people to build two houses at the same time, or the materials,” Hesaltine said. Today, a small paid staff oversees the program, fundraising, ReStore thrift shop and a trailer of Habitat-owned tools.
“We’re a hand up, not a handout,” Etze emphasized.
And perhaps they’ll inspire a new generation of Habitat volunteers.
Standing to the side of a Georgetown build, Andrew May was looking for a way to be helpful. He’s beginning the task of accumulating volunteer hours so he could be eligible for Habitat assistance. Right now, he lives with his mother and little boy in Bridgeville.
“It was very interesting hearing about a program that wanted to help families [but uses] no government funding,” May said. “It’s a good way to help, especially if you have the experience and knowledge.”
Despite his having no building experience, the regulars quickly found tasks for May, carrying, cutting or mixing as instructed.
“They should volunteer in spite of … [the excuse of] ‘I don’t have any skill.’ Once they have volunteering in their blood,” Hesaltine said, they won’t stop. “They’ll have a good time.”
For more information on Habitat for Humanity, visit www.sussexcountyhabitat.org or call (302) 855-1153, ext. 208, to volunteer, or ext. 204 for housing assistance.