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Home improvement meets self-improvement

Todd Fratzel (in dark blue shirt) taught volunteers from Pi Kappa Phi the proper way to hammer a nail during their training session in Concord in June. The students later set out on a tour to improve access for the disabled at camps as part of the Build America program.kieran kesner for the boston globe/Globe Freelance

When you picture a pack of fraternity brothers traveling around the country doing construction work, you’re probably tempted to imagine the Hollywood version — a beer- and testosterone-fueled road trip, “Animal House” with power tools. With Pi Kappa Phi, it’s a tale of dedication, inspiration, and service.

Since the late 1970s, members of the fraternity have been building accessible play spaces and recreational structures for the disabled as part of a volunteer program now called Build America. Over the course of this summer, two dozen or so fraternity members will travel the country visiting camps for people with disabilities. They'll build accessible nature trails, repair roofs or decks, and forge lasting bonds with disabled campers reveling in the joys of summer.

Build America's first stop this summer was a return trip to Camp Allen in Bedford, N.H. "It's incredible what they do," said Mary Constance, who recently retired as the camp's executive director. "They built a sensory garden for our campers with sensory issues, and it's everyone's favorite part of the camp now. The campers all clap for them when they come into the dining hall."


So, no, it's not your Hollywood frat-guy narrative.

Meanwhile, hammer-wielding volunteers from high school kids to chief executives have helped Habitat for Humanity's Greater Boston chapter build more than 100 homes for low-income families in the past 28 years, opening front doors and access to the middle class.

"Habitat is not just about building affordable housing," said Lark Jurev Palermo, president and chief executive of Habitat Greater Boston. "We're really about helping families break generational cycles of poverty. And we're doing it one family at a time."

In both cases, volunteers are able to make a direct and lasting impact on people's lives while learning useful home improvement skills from construction experts.

The fraternity members who participate in Build America are passionate about serving people with disabilities, but many come in with little or no construction experience. So when the Globe's Ask the Carpenter writer, Rob Robillard, heard about the program from fellow carpenter Phil Benevides, he decided to help the cause.


"I realized they had no instruction on tool safety or how to use these tools, no building experience, and really crappy tools," Robillard said.

Zack Agerton, who has completed Build America three times, acknowledges that they were barely scraping by in that regard. "A lot of the tools we had three years ago, they were just a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs and things we bought off of Craigslist and stuff. We had two circular saws, and they were both left-handed."

So Robillard reached out to his connections in the industry and got more than $10,000 in tools donated from companies such as Milwaukee. "Then I said, you know what, not only am I going to get them the tools, I'm going to teach them how to use them," he said.

This summer, the Build America team is slated to reroof a camp cafeteria, build a horse shed, and repair a mile-long boardwalk that winds through woods, among other projects. So Robillard and Benevides developed a 65-page lesson plan and an intensive two-day training course with those specific tasks and building techniques in mind.

"We have a roofing station, we have a deck-building station . . . we have all kinds of tool stations," Robillard said.

The sessions, from ladder safety to how to use nail guns to table saws, are set up in a "crawl-walk-run" progression, he said, with an emphasis on safety and building confidence with the tools. "We're teaching them how to hammer nails into wood, because a lot of these kids have never done that," Robillard said. "And an hour and a half later, they're going to be using a circular saw."


As the team puts these skills to use, the accessible structures they build will benefit hundreds of kids and adults with disabilities for years to come.

The suspended reality of a summer camp experience allows people with disabilities — who sometimes feel defined by what they can't do — to celebrate all the things they can do. "It's about abilities, not about disabilities," said Benevides, a Pi Kappa Phi member during his days at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Nick Julian, who is back for his second summer with Build America, said helping to make that camp experience accessible to everyone is at the heart of the group's mission. He speaks of meeting a girl named Caroline with cerebral palsy last year in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. On the last day of camp, she wrote a speech. "For her, writing was pretty difficult, but she wrote it anyway. And she said, 'Every time I'm at camp, I don't feel like I have a disability.' "

Agerton, who is now director of special events at the Ability Experience, the fraternity's philanthropy, agreed that camp culture seems to bring out the best in everybody.

"My first year going in, I had zero expectations and very little building experience," Agerton said. "I just remember going into the first camp, in Empire, Colo., and I met this girl — she had this really rare disability where she was born with no cartilage in her body. By the time she was 8 years old, she'd already had around 40 operations."


The girl was mostly nonverbal, but Agerton immediately grew attached to her. He ate every meal with her and spent his evenings entertaining her, letting her paint his fingernails or pretend to steal his nose. "To see her face light up every day, just doing those small things, was amazing."

If Build America is about making the magic of summer camp more accessible, Habitat for Humanity aims to broaden access to the middle class through homeownership — a path that, in the Boston area at least, is increasingly closed off to people in low-wage jobs.

Stephen England was living in a cramped Brockton apartment with his wife, Arlene, and their three children before closing on a Dorchester Habitat home in June. "We have friends over now, and they didn't believe it until they saw the house," he said. "It's just amazing. I never would have dreamed that I'd own a house right now."

Contrary to what some people think, Habitat doesn't give homes away. Homesteaders, as the families are called, are required to put in 300 hours of work — or "sweat equity" — and attend 10 homeownership classes. They sign a promissory note just like other home buyers, and take out a mortgage through Habitat. "The huge difference is we charge zero percent interest," Palermo said, which helps owners build equity more quickly.


Because of Habitat's sweat-equity requirement, volunteers at a build site often work side by side with the future homeowners. Palermo said that's the most rewarding part of the experience for some volunteers. "Many of our homesteaders are really inspirational and extraordinary in terms of what they've done to get to this point in their lives where they're working with us," she said.

The structures, relationships, and memories these volunteers make will last a lifetime — just like the home improvement skills they learn.

England, who managed to meet the 300-hour volunteer requirement while working two jobs, picked up a number of skills along the way. "I learned a lot of stuff," he said. "I learned how to put in windows. I learned how to do drywall, painting, put the floors down."

Likewise, Robillard said the skills the Build America team will learn and put into practice this summer will prove valuable when they become homeowners one day. "Even if they never roof their own home, they might hire a roofer someday, and it might help them when they're talking to the roofer, going through the scope of the job and going through the proposal."

Habitat volunteers, meanwhile, are literally changing the face of Boston. The work you might do on a Habitat build site largely depends on what stage of construction the project is in when you show up. In other words, Palermo said, it's not all about wall raising.

"That's the sort of picture people have in their mind as to what they're going to get to do when they work on a Habitat site," she said. "But it depends. If you're there at the time of the project when it's time to raise some walls, then yeah, you will raise walls!"

But with three active construction sites going, you may be tasked with anything from demolition to window installation to finishing work such as tiling, trim, or painting.

The end result is an often-emotional home dedication. Volunteers are invited to the ceremony, where they get to see a grateful family take ownership of a house they helped build.

“Once it’s all done and you have a home dedication, and you get to go and see what it was all about, that is really incredible,” Palermo said. “It’s really amazing what people can do, even if they have absolutely no skills at all going into it.”

Jon Gorey is a freelance writer in Quincy. Send comments to jongorey@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey.