Trading Blazers for Hard Hats

Sumner Ellsworth

The Colgate 13 is known more for sweet serenades than for building houses. But for a week over winter break, the 13 went to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity instead of touring the way they usually do.

Usually over winter break, the 13 spends three weeks touring the country, singing on the radio and television, at town halls and football games.

This year was a little different. The main purpose of the January tour is to raise the money needed to finance the group’s activities for the rest of the year (everything from gas to making CDs). This December, Colgate’s only all male a capella group found themselves in a unique financial situation where then didn’t need to tour to support their singing habit.

“We had a really successful semester,” Leader of the Colgate 13, senior Kevin Erway said. “We had enough money to be okay. It was better for us not to tour.”

This financial security meant that they didn’t need to go on a January tour. Some scheduling difficulties meant that not being able to go was a very real possibility. Instead, Erway arranged for the group to spend six days in New Orleans working with Habitat for Humanity.

“We decided to do some philanthropy for a change,” Erway said. “I think this is the first time the 13 has done that, certainly in my time with the group. When we picked a place to go, I was first thinking who needs the most help? And [New Orleans] was the first place that came to mind.”

There were no groups going through the COVE for the 13 to join, but Erway was impressed by how easy it was to set up.

“It was amazingly easy to organize,” he said. “The beautiful thing about volunteerism is they want you, they’re going to do everything they can to make it as easy as possible for you to get there and work.”

A couple of emails to the main Habitat organization, as well as the Gulf Coast Recovery division, and they were on their way to New Orleans.

For six days, starting on January 7, 12 members of the Colgate 13 spent eight hours a day working to build houses for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Habitat for Humanity sent them to St. Tammany West, Louisiana. St Tammany, in addition to being one of the richest communities in Louisiana, did not receive a lot of damage from Hurricane Katrina, so many of the people displaced by the destruction settled there. But as the government funding for housing ran out, they could no longer afford their rents. Having settled into jobs and schools, they are reluctant to move away, which is where Habitat for Humanity comes in, building low-income housing.

The 13 were put to work doing all kinds of things that they happily referred to as “bitch work:” laying sod, installing fiberglass, digging flower beds and more.

“Dirt became the theme of it all,” Erway said. “Let me put it this way, our limo has never been so dirty, which is absolutely saying something. But we had a blast.”

“I loved the work,” sophomore 13 member Max Melilo said. “I did philanthropy in high school, so I thought this was a great thing for us to be doing.”

Habitat for Humanity suffers from the same lack of male volunteers as the COVE does here at Colgate, so they were very excited to see 12 able-bodied males that they could put to work.

“They definitely appreciated having 12 college guys there,” Erway said. “We were a rare commodity.”

Melilo expanded on this. “There were two guys who were our supervisors, and they told us that if we hadn’t been there, they would have been working on these five houses on their own.”

Even though singing wasn’t the focus of the trip (they only sang for a group larger than themselves once), the group felt that they got a lot out of the trip.

“This was an incredible experience for everyone involved,” Erway said. “We met people who were doing amazing work for virtually nothing. It was the most relaxing 13 trip I’ve been on. It’s funny, when you’re doing something that’s completely out of your comfort zone, it doesn’t feel like work at all. I would love to see the group do more trips like this. They gave us shirts at the end that said ‘Who knew blisters could feel so good?’ By the end, it felt more like ‘Who knew blisters could be so fun?'”