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Students take on Habitat build

Students from Drexel University in Philadelphia and Columbia College in Chicago spent their spring break in Albany helping to build two Flint River Habitat for Humanity homes on Sunny Lane.

Students from Drexel University in Philadelphia and Columbia College in Chicago spent their spring break in Albany helping to build two Flint River Habitat for Humanity homes on Sunny Lane.

ALBANY -- Clearly proud of the progress made to that point, Jim Cross, construction manager for Flint River Habitat for Humanity, gestured broadly inside a home-in-progress Monday.

"There's no wasted space in this little house," Cross said. "It's just a tight as it can be."

At the house two lots over, swarms of students from two "northern" schools -- Drexel University and Columbia College -- were putting in hours of hard work.

As they labored, stacks of hamburger patties, weenies and buns sizzled in the open air, grilled by visiting members of the Marine Corps League. League members said the students, who had paid $120 each for the privilege of working in the Southern sun for people they never met, deserved the treats.

According to Usman Syed, a junior at Drexel who is majoring in engineering, each year one of the brothers at Sigma Phi Epsilon takes charge of the service projects sponsored by the fraternity. This year Syed was that brother.

Syed said that although the projects are sponsored by Sigma Phi Epsilon, participation is universitywide and is promoted by various publications and by word of mouth on the Philadelphia college's campus. Seven or eight trips are available as alternatives to traditional student spring breaks, not all of them associated with Habitat for Humanity.

"It's good to get away from school for a while but without spending the time inside bars or just throwing it away," Syed said. "It's good to see different people in different places."

"People are so much nicer here," said Ariana Johnson, a student at Columbia College in Chicago.

Johnson's remarks were echoed by many of the students, who said people in Chicago and Philadelphia generally seem less open and hospitable than those they've met down South.

Only four of the total 21 students working were from Columbia, with the remaining 17 from Drexel. The Columbia trip was sponsored by University Center, where the Columbia students live while going to school.

"(University Center) wanted the students to have the opportunity to go somewhere new and to have an experience like this. The school doesn't offer it," Jennifer Milam said.

At least one of the homes being built on Sunny Lane will be for a military veteran -- a single mother of two -- according to Cross, who calls the not-for-profit homes "a hand up, not a hand out." A paid Habitat employee, Cross said he believes strongly in what he's doing.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't," he said.

In order to qualify for a nonprofit, no-interest home, applicants must meet certain guidelines in terms of financial ability -- that is, they must be able to afford the payments without having so much income they are no longer in need. In addition, no one who is to live in the new home may have any type of criminal background. Applicants must also put in a specified amount of sweat equity -- physical labor -- on a home, Cross said.

Worldwide, Habitat for Humanity recently completed its one millionth home in Haiti, while the two Sunny Lane homes will make 131 and 132 for the Flint River affiliate. According to Cross, Flint River Habitat has a goal of four completed homes each year.

"That's a whole lot more than the average (Habitat) affiliate," Cross said.

Cross also said the land for the two homes was donated by the city of Albany, which has been very dedicated to the Habitat cause. He said that without help from the city (home builds) wouldn't be possible.

Members of the Marine Corps League, one of several groups supporting Flint River Habitat for Humanity, were on site Monday to cook and to show support for the students and for the military veteran who will receive a home. According to League member Greg Freed, the organization's primary function is to support Marines and former Marines in any way they can.

"I feel I've led a fortunate life," said Kenn Berggren, another League member. "I feel I need to give something back."