Featured photo: Sam Banks, Knoxville ’23, assists in constructing a Habitat for Humanity house.
By Brooks Clark | Courtesy Photos
In 1996, UT Knoxville Director of Residence Life Jerry Adams and his staff attended an American College and University Housing Officers International conference where they heard that Ball State University had built a Habitat for Humanity home.
“We decided to do it that fall,” says Adams. “We raised $17,000 that fall semester and built the first house that spring of 1997.”
Since then, the resident assistants (RAs) have raised funds and built a house yearly or every other year for a total of 19 homes.
“Students take pride in the houses,” says Adams, “and they have realized what a difference this makes in people’s lives.”
Through haunted houses, escape rooms, boo grams at Halloween, candy grams on Valentine’s Day, residence hall T-shirts and video-game tournaments, RAs raise as much as $30,000 each year, more than half the $55,000 needed to build a home. (An anonymous UT professor fills in the gaps.)
“In Fred Brown Hall, we have a fundraiser called Hotel Brown,” says Abby Key, a 2023 Haslam College of Business graduate and a former RA and assistant hall director. “You provide room service by hall associates one night in March from a menu of food items that are delivered to rooms. We raised $1,800 this year.”
The RAs also work with the homeowners to help build the houses over six weekends. The first Saturday is Blitz Day, when 60 RA volunteers raise the interior and exterior walls. On subsequent weekends, RAs install the roof and siding, paint the walls, and install cabinets and trim.
“It was an amazing opportunity to build a house, do manual labor with the people that you love and have a good time doing it,” says Key, now a Cintas management trainee in Chester, Virginia. “It was such a valuable experience end to end.”
“From a pragmatic standpoint,” says Angie Sledge, Knoxville Habitat for Humanity’s development director, “the RAs are reliable partners as a source of funding and volunteers. Thanks to them, we know we can meet our build commitments, which we schedule a year in advance. The Volunteer spirit permeates throughout the university. The RAs own that reputation and that brand. They are always there.”
That spirit flows through the RAs.
Having grown up in Mount Airy, North Carolina, in a University of North Carolina family, Key says, “Tennessee was not an obvious choice for me. The Volunteer spirit was the main reason I came to UT in the first place. When I toured, they took us by the Torchbearer and recited the Volunteer Creed. I could feel the flow of energy that came through me. I love the Volunteer spirit, the meaning behind it and the power behind it.”
Each summer, Habitat staffers meet with the RAs—190 in 2023—during their training week.
“It is absolutely a highlight of the year for many of us,” says Sledge, “an uplifting, energizing experience. We talk to the students about their aspirations in life, what their majors are, how housing is such an integral part of their success. The students recognize that. Every year someone raises his hand to say that either they grew up in a Habitat house or they had a friend who did.”
The house erected in spring 2022 went to Angelique Carpenter, a 24-year-old caregiver for Senior Citizens Home Assistance Service, and her children, Dahlia, 2, and Acacia, 1. In Navy ROTC at Knoxville’s West High School, Carpenter had volunteered on two or three Habitat builds, including a Blitz Day. After graduating from West in 2016, she joined the Navy, but an injury led to a medical discharge. She applied to Knoxville Habitat For Humanity in November 2021, passed the standard credit check and income verification, and took budgeting and home maintenance classes—“Things like how you maintain a hot water heater,” says Carpenter.
“She worked all day long doing what we did,” says RA Robby Davis, an aerospace engineering major from Decatur. A former Boy Scout, he had missed the volunteering he’d done with the Scouts and enjoyed building with Habitat. “I like working behind the scenes and with my hands. I’ve seen how the housing crisis affects people. This allows me to help others who are not as fortunate as I am.”
On the seventh weekend comes a dedication.
“For the dedication, everybody came,” says Carpenter. “I enjoyed getting to know the students. I enjoyed talking to Jerry. He is such a great guy.”
Her home is in an 11-acre neighborhood of Habitat homes in Strawberry Plains named Ellen’s Glen for the late Ellen R. “Sis” Mitchell, who founded Knoxville’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate in 1985. It will eventually hold some 35 homes.
“I was so psyched that I was going to get into a real neighborhood,” says Carpenter. “Everyone here is working hard, and everyone knows everyone is working hard. I know everyone in the neighborhood.”
The home has changed life for her and her children.
“It’s meant everything to me,” says Carpenter. “I never thought I’d own a home, let alone a new home. My kids can play and walk in the street. For my oldest, it was such a drastic change in how she’s looking at things and wanting to go outside.”
Sledge points to Adams’ leadership for continuing the work at UT.
“This is a student-led, RA-led initiative,” says Sledge. “But it would never have continued without Jerry’s steady leadership. He is the gentle, unsung hero. He does not accept the limelight. His leadership commands so much respect from those students. They perk up when he speaks. He is a dynamic, quiet force.”
Adams, who bears a passing resemblance to actor Steve Carell, grew up on a dairy farm in Piney Creek, North Carolina, a mile from the Virginia border, and went to Appalachian State University for his bachelor’s in accounting and master’s in human development and counseling.
“I was an RA in my last year as an undergrad,” he says. “It ended up fitting my personality. I didn’t know that you could make housing a career.”
He started his career in housing at App State, then came to UTK in 1988. He ran Hess Hall for five years, area-coordinated Massey Hall for five years, and is now in his 35th year in Knoxville. With his calm, easy manner, Adams looks decades younger than his 62 years.
“People say that working with young people keeps you young,” he explains with a smile. “I take great pride in staying touch with lots of kids from lots of years.”
Two years ago, the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Great Smoky Mountain Chapter honored University Housing with its Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy Award.
“Being a Volunteer means putting others before yourself and giving back to the community that raised us, shaped us and gives us the tools to become stewards in our society,” said Key in accepting on behalf of her fellow RAs. “Personally, I love getting to play Bob the Builder for the day while also making an impact on my community.”