Cooking up a habitat

Cooking+up+a+habitat

What do a part-time drafting teacher and an 11-year landscape architect have in common?

Other than being married, Gwen and Alex Cook spend most Saturdays building homes with Habitat for Humanity, an international non-profit organization dedicated to providing affordable homes and support services to local, prospective homeowners.

Gwen, a third year drafting teacher at Decatur, grew up under the influence of her two grandfathers, both woodworkers.

“They would let me tinker in their wood shops,” she said, “and then I became a wood shop and metal shop teacher, which evolved into technology and drafting.”

Gwen Cook is known to work on the roofs of houses and she tries to encourage homebuyers to join her. “Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it doesn’t,” she said. One homebuyer who did help on the roof was a fellow teacher. “We connected pretty easily,” Gwen said. “It was really fun to connect with her just on a teacher level and then also doing this construction.”
Ella Burge
Gwen Cook is known to work on the roofs of houses and she tries to encourage homebuyers to join her. “Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it doesn’t,” she said. One homebuyer who did help on the roof was a fellow teacher. “We connected pretty easily,” Gwen said. “It was really fun to connect with her just on a teacher level and then also doing this construction.”

Shortly after moving to Atlanta in 1990, Gwen began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.

The “heavy construction” quickly appealed to the experienced woodworker.

“I can do [detailing and painting] kind of anywhere,” she said, “but I like the construction. You know, let’s build a wall and stand it up and put the roof on.”

Within her first year as a volunteer with Habitat, Gwen became a skilled supervisor. This means she goes to a build site and directs a group of volunteers. There, she ensures the task is finished, the volunteers participate and everything is done safely and up to standards.

Her husband, Alex, grew up attending Decatur Presbyterian Church, where he first discovered Habitat from his “super service-minded” youth minister.

“All the trips were work trips,” Alex said. “We were going to go somewhere and serve somebody else. It wasn’t always with Habitat, but it ingrained in me the spirit that’s behind Habitat.”

After college, Alex worked with Habitat for eight days, working in the “roughest” parts of coal mining Kentucky.

He didn’t resume his work with Habitat until after attending graduate school and accepting a job at a large architecture firm.

In 1999, a co-worker encouraged Alex and others to spend a Saturday building with Habitat.

“I liked it so much that day that I showed up the next week,” Alex said. “Nobody else went, just me. I [thought] ‘well, I’m going to keep going,’ and I went a third week and then a fourth week.”

Alex quickly made friends with the house leader on the site and started showing up at his builds.

“I would go sporadically and then somewhere around 2003, I started showing up on a regular basis,” he said.

This resulted in Alex becoming a skilled supervisor, the same position his wife holds.

From 2003 to 2007, his build site attendance grew to nearly 30 Saturdays a year.

“I’d been doing landscape architecture for 11 years, and I just never really loved it,” he said. “I lost my job, and Habitat was hiring, so I went to work for them.”

Since being hired in 2008, Alex became a house leader for Atlanta Habitat. He is in charge of an entire build and everything that entails, as well as all 40 plus volunteers every Saturday.

In addition to ensuring that the house is finished on time, and to the homebuyers’ specifications, Alex is tasked with completing anything left unfinished and properly equipping the site before the next Saturday of building.

As a house leader, Alex Cook has control over one of Habitat’s key aspects. “I am a teacher [to the volunteers],” he said. “I have to sell the concept of Habitat to get them to come back, get them excited about it.” Then, eventually, Alex’s “crowning moment” is if he can get volunteers to become sponsors so that they can forward Habitat’s mission.
Ella Burge
As a house leader, Alex Cook has control over one of Habitat’s key aspects. “I am a teacher [to the volunteers],” he said. “I have to sell the concept of Habitat to get them to come back, get them excited about it.” Then, eventually, Alex’s “crowning moment” is if he can get volunteers to become sponsors so that they can forward Habitat’s mission.

“There’s one house per house leader,” he said. “Basically, we have to meet with the homebuyer and we have to take the homebuyer through the process of building their house.”

Alex ushers the homebuyer through picking colors, countertops, floors and all other features of the physical house, as well as walking them through the responsibilities that come with buying a home.

This includes preparing the homebuyer for the new stage of homeownership.

“[The homebuyers] have gone through this crazy screening process to prove on paper that they’re financially ready,” he said, “but mentally, you’ve got to change their position in life. [They’ve] got to change it from temporary to permanent.”

Native Atlantan, special education teacher and Habitat homebuyer Sarah Martin was aware of the process and its implications before beginning, unlike most homebuyers.

“I became more familiar with Atlanta Habitat for Humanity in the summer of 2006 when my mother began working towards purchasing her home,” she said. “It was a joy to participate in her build.”

Atlanta Habitat assigned Alex as Martin’s house leader and work began in October 2014.

“On day one, I was blessed to meet [Alex’s] wife and parents,” Martin said. “They were equally compassionate about the mission and values of Atlanta Habitat and what it truly means to serve.”

Gwen and Alex also showed Martin how to “swing a hammer, safely climb on a roof, stain cedar wood and so much more.”

Alex encouraged both Martin and the volunteers to take pride in their work since the home would house Martin and her now eight-year-old son, Gavin.

Martin and Alex, in the midst of choosing paints, cabinets and carpets, concocted the idea for a gable, a decoration that closes off the end of a pitched roof.

“[Alex] designed the shakes, I nailed and stained them along with a few other volunteers,” Martin said. “It was an exhilarating experience, and I began to truly feel like this would be my home.”

Alex and Gwen weren’t the only Cooks involved in Martin’s build, though. Alex’s mother helped create a rose garden with rocks she hand collected.

“I learned so much about building, maintaining and creating a great home from Alex and all of his family,” she said. “I appreciate the passion that the Cook family brings to the build and how considerate they are of the homeowner’s desires.”

Atlanta Habitat holds a staff meeting every Tuesday morning. There, the house leaders discuss how the weekend builds went and based on the response, a group is sent to the various sites to pick up loose ends. In the meantime, Alex Cook focuses on preparing for the upcoming build day. “I have to load my trailer full of everything we’ll need for the next Saturday,” he said. “[During] the week, I’m in the warehouse recovering from Saturday; unloading, loading, making sure all of the materials are ready.”
Ella Burge
Atlanta Habitat holds a staff meeting every Tuesday morning. There, the house leaders discuss how the weekend builds went and based on the response, a group is sent to the various sites to pick up loose ends. In the meantime, Alex Cook focuses on preparing for the upcoming build day. “I have to load my trailer full of everything we’ll need for the next Saturday,” he said. “[During] the week, I’m in the warehouse recovering from Saturday; unloading, loading, making sure all of the materials are ready.”

Habitat employees, homebuyers, volunteers and students alike can get involved with Habitat.

Junior Kate Immergluck’s father worked for Habitat and inspired her and other students to participate.

After hearing of clubs at other schools and with the help of teacher sponsor Beau Dominguez, Immergluck started a Habitat club at Decatur.

“I asked [a friend] if she wanted to volunteer with me at Habitat and she was like, ‘you can do that with our club,’” she said. “[She had] started a club at Lovett and I was like,” Immergluck paused to gasp, “‘that’s so cool, I want to do that.’”

Eighteen students attended Immergluck’s first meeting, extinguishing her worry of being unable to fill the minimum ten volunteer requirement for a build.

“Okay, first of all, people actually listen to the announcements,” she said. “That really surprised me. All these sophomores and one freshman and a couple seniors came.”

Immergluck hopes the club will become established enough that they can sponsor a house, which costs $9,000. She recognizes the improbability of Decatur’s club raising the money on its own.

“I’ve been talking to the sponsorship coordinator at Habitat, and they’re trying to connect us [with other schools],” she said. “If we can partner with a few other schools then we could raise the amount of money collectively and actually sponsor an entire house.”

Sarah Martin’s name has been changed for anonymity.

Photos by Ella Burge

Click on the link above to see how to become an Atlanta Habitat for Humanity homebuyer. 

All information provided by Alex Cook, house leader for Atlanta Habitat for Humanity