Beginning a build: Habitat for Humanity volunteers bring homes to life

Pictured are John Keller and Mike Abbate working on a home for Dunkirk.

Chautauqua Area Habitat for Humanity is continuing its work to create affordable homes for working families with children under the age of 18 who reside with them.

This sometimes entails the rehabilitation of an existing house, and sometimes the construction of a new one as is the case in 2024. One partner, the Chautauqua County Land Bank, is instrumental in offering us houses that can be rehabilitated, or demolishing houses that cannot be saved and offering us the property. Either way, it’s a huge bonus for working, first-time homeowner families who have not been able in the past to purchase a house for any of a variety of reasons.

None of this would be possible without a core of volunteers who do most of the work on these houses. Sometimes, there is a small band of construction volunteers who go above and beyond what is usually given in terms of time and skills. John Keller leads one such small group whose efforts cannot be overstated.

Keller starts with the architect’s drawings and creates a template for constructing the exterior and interior walls. All measurements are drawn to the architect’s specifications, the wood is ordered, and the crew then lays out the pieces and starts putting together this enormous puzzle. Fortunately, since the first house this spring will be constructed in Dunkirk, Habitat was able to connect with Mike Muldowney who is loaning our crew warehouse space large enough to create the frame for the house to be built at 9-11 Genet St. in Dunkirk.

Keller spends hours and hours on his drawings which must be accurate to the tenth of an inch. He usually works many, many hours when he has spare time to complete the drawings. From there, a materials list is developed, and the orders are placed. It is usually up to Dave Kurzawa to place the order, secure a warehouse, and arrange for the materials to get there.

John Keller of Fredonia is a key volunteer.

Volunteers contribute their own saws, hammers, and measuring tapes, and then the work begins after laying out the pre-numbered boards from the template that John has created. Since the men working are “of a certain age,” they decided that it would be easier to create a platform for the wall construction so that they could avoid kneeling on the floor. Sawhorses now support a platform where the work is being done.

None of this would be possible without the skilled, extraordinary efforts of Keller of Fredonia. He starts months before the work is to begin and uses the architect’s plans to create the plan for the frame of the house. Since this is the third time he has done this, he is able to make tiny adjustments to his plans so that there are no gaps or left-over pieces. If there is a tiny error in one section, he can calculate the reason why and fix it. It takes a skilled and very generous person to do this.

Keller not only uses his talents to build walls, but he then appears at the worksite every Saturday (and many weekdays) to lend a hand with whatever the project of the day is. He has been known to rake soil and gravel, help with plumbing and heating, construct doorways, lay floors – almost anything but painting. (We know when to taper off our expectations of him!) He is the unendingly terrific construction volunteer who is also a board member for Chautauqua Area Habitat for Humanity.

When asked “What drives you to do all this for Habitat?” he replied, “”God has blessed me with good construction skills and it’s my job to use those skills to bless others. And Habitat for Humanity is the best way to do that.”

He relies heavily on his coworkers, Pat Rodgers and Kurzawa of Silver Creek, Dave Nowak and Mike Cerabone of Angola, and Mike Abbate of Jamestown. Together, they are a formidable team whose generosity is exceeded only by their skills, devotion to Habitat, and its mission to create affordable homes for working families. These people make a huge difference in the northern communities of Chautauqua County.


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