Roanoke College’s Freshman Class Joins Habitat for Humanity in Construction

Roanoke College students make progress on a new Habitat house.
Roanoke College students make progress on a new Habitat house.

by Mary Campagna

Hanan Ahmed, 45, from the Sudan in Africa still speaks broken English, but she doesn’t feel like she’s a long way from home. In fact, her new “R House,” being built by all 540 of Roanoke College’s incoming freshmen class as a requirement of their orientation, will soon be ready for the move from campus to its residential setting in Roanoke City. Ahmed and her family of five are slated to move in by the end of March.

“I’m too excited about my new home!” Ahmed exclaimed. “I can’t even sleep!”

Ahmed explained that the rent at the townhouse where her family now resides is several hundred dollars more than the mortgage on her R House will be. It is subsidized by Roanoke’s Habitat for Humanity, many donors and Roanoke College.

“I work from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. at Dynex in Roanoke County,” Ahmed said. “My husband Hassan Elhassan and I are raising three children; the oldest is a medical student at VCU in Richmond, but we were very glad to help Habitat for Humanity build houses for other people as well as our own.”

“Families chosen for the Habitat houses must contribute between 200 and 300 hours of “sweat time” work on houses for others before they may be eligible to receive their own habitat house,” said Jesse Griffin, 34, from the Office of Community Service at Roanoke College. “This is the 6th house that our students have built on campus, and they will continue to work on the house on weekends and holidays after it’s transferred to its new location.”

Griffin said that the project supports one of Roanoke College’s four pillars involving a total commitment from its students to provide service within the community.

“We used to bus students out to various service locations, but that was proving to be a logistical nightmare,” Griffin said. “A generous grant from a family whose child was a former student here made it possible for us to build the house on site, and then transfer it in two sections.

The second floor, cabinets, HVAC, roof, plumbing, and electrical are all to be installed after the house is moved.”

“One of the downstairs front rooms will be installed with double pocket doors so that it may be used either as front room or a bedroom for Sagi, the family’s oldest son, when he comes home from college,” said Katherine Gray, an architect and Project Manager of Habitat for Humanity.

Gray said that she worked for an architectural firm for a few years after finishing college at Clemson and USC at Charlotte – merely to appease her parents. But she soon followed her heart and came to work for Habitat, even though it meant sacrificing a lucrative salary.

“The best thing about my job is seeing so many people come out to donate time and energy to make someone else’s life better,” Gray said. “This is really my passion and a mission for me.”

 Roanoke College’s Chaplain of 25 years – Rev. Paul Henrickson, 64, also experienced a career evolution.

“I didn’t start out thinking I’d ever become a college chaplain,” said Henrickson, who has a degree in aerospace engineering and once worked for NASA.  “This job kind of fell into my lap, like ‘pie out of the sky,’ once I decided that I really wanted to be a minister.”

Henrickson said the Habitat for Humanity project was a good fit for a Lutheran establishment like Roanoke College because “part of Martin Luther’s understanding was that individuals need to search for and discover God’s calling upon their lives,” and that one could always stand upon the truth of the Gospel to find freedom in giving service to others.

“Student assessment surveys have consistently revealed that about 95 % of our freshman classes have rated this activity as either good or very good,” said Henrickson. “This sort of activity builds relationships and a sense of community. Our college’s mission is to educate students to be citizens who are of service to others within a free society.”

Lots of Roanoke College students like Adriana Alissi, 18, a business major from Boston, Massachusetts and Jillian Vasco, 17, a communications major from New Canaan, Connecticut are enthusiastic about this freshman project. According to them, the ‘doing’ may be just as powerful as the talking.

“We got a hammer and a nail in our hands as soon as we showed up,” said Alissi.

Freshmen have been streaming in since Sunday afternoon in groups of 30 volunteers.

“We’re concerned about the serious economic climate of the nation and the people who are suffering,” said Vasco. “I didn’t think I could do this kind of work, but I can and I’m glad it’s required. It’s fun!”

Salem Pizza donated countless lunches and dinners for the project, and Mill Mountain Coffee donated coffee. People from the community came in with trays of donuts and Habitat also provided snacks.

Karen Mason, Habitat for Humanity’s Executive Director, said the building project would continue on the Roanoke College campus through last Tuesday evening.

For more information on Roanoke Valley Habitat for Humanity, visit