Building Up More than Just Houses

Kirstin Daniels

A US Air Force veteran and CHFP Cohort 6 grad shares her experience moving through the program and rebuilding homes, and herself, in Houston

I first applied to the Clay Hunt Fellowship in November of 2017.  

I didn’t tell anyone I knew within Team Rubicon that I applied to the program for a long time because I didn’t want to jinx it. When I did finally let it slip, I remember being advised, “not to get my hopes up, because there are a lot of kick ass TRibe mates that were applying for the fellowship also.”  

And they were right. There were nearly 300 applicants for the 9 slots 

I was hopeful, but also had this, “yeah right, like I’d ever be good enough” kind of thinking. 

I got a phone call at 5 p.m. on the day the applications closed from a Hawaii area code. I looked at the number and I only knew two people with that area code—one was a former supervisor, and the other was my younger brother. The number on the screen didn’t belong to either. 

I answered it and it was Michael Davidson, a leader with the CHFP. I remember kind of panicking because I was not expecting a call that soon and was not prepared.   

After about 20 minutes (which felt like a lifetime) we hung up and my initial thought was “well, I just f’ed that all-kinds-of-up.” Turns out I hadn’t. 

Greyshirt and US Air Force Veteran Kirstin Daniel’s official CHFP Portrait

Answering the Call

I got the call that I was selected for the fellowship on January 24th, 2019. I was at a Team Rubicon event in Washington D.C. and had stepped away to take the call. It all happened pretty fast after that: I left Washington D.C. on February 23rd on a train and moved to Houston just over 30 days later.  

Now, while I have moved several times in my life, I had never shared a house with non-family members before. I didn’t do the college sorority thing, and while in the Air Force only lived in dorms on base for a few months before I got married and moved into a house. I didn’t know the other Clay Hunt Fellows who would be my roommates for the year, so I was pretty nervous when I arrived. Thankfully, they instantly greeted me like I was an old friend.  

Bikes, Tattoos, and Confidence 

In the beginning, I didn’t really talk to anyone. I was this nerdy, shy wallflower who just sat back and listened to the conversations going on around me.  

My desk was my safety zone inside of a safety zone. Leadership and my fellow cohort mates constantly (gently and not so gently) prodded me to do things that were out of my comfort zone and eventually, I felt comfortable enough to finally come out of my shell.  

I bought a road bike (and crashed a lot), I got my first tattoo, I went parasailing, I drove a trailer loaded with insulation on I-10 (and also learned a valuable lesson in making sure stuff is tied down properly), and I changed my hair five times!  

All things I probably wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for my fellow cohort mates and their (gentle and not-so-gentle) encouragement to explore myself and my growth. 

Daniel’s conducting Rebuild services onsite in Houston, Texas

From the Ground Up 

When I started at the Houston Rebuild, I had very little knowledge on how to use a lot of the tools we would be using.  

It took hours and hours of training for me to get comfortable using them, and I also had no f’ing idea how to rebuild a house. Thankfully, they hired Joe Kaye, who taught us everything from framing to finishing in six… yes, SIX weeks. It was intense.  

We trained Monday through Saturday; the days long and tiring and consisted of a mix of classroom lessons and hands-on activities, like the building of an entire tiny home which eventually became the lounge area for volunteers.  

We worked hard during each day but that didn’t mean we weren’t having the time of our lives: we had dance parties, belted song lyrics while we worked, and cracked nonstop jokes at each other. At the end of every day we left exhausted to go home, sleep, and repeat.  

Building So Much More than Homes

I was assigned to the project management team, my position being in finance and scheduling. In this position, I oversaw the financial accountability (direct costs, and invoices), schedule creation, and tracking of multiple rebuild projects simultaneously. Neither of these two positions had any existing guidance.  

To this day, everything that currently exists for these two positions I built from the ground up. The task I was given was not an easy one, to take the reins on these two very necessary needs, and I definitely had a very a steep learning curve. We worked processes through trial and error as we learned how to use the different features in our project management software (Procore & Primavera P6). 

It was certainly frustrating, and sometimes down right discouraging—but once we worked out the kinks in processes, we were able to do what we do best: kick disasters in the teeth and put families back into safe homes. 

The Members of the Clay Hunt Fellow’s Program Cohort 6

Make That Change” 

During what’s called “You School”, we were asked to take a deeper look inside to find the best version of yourself.  

We all actively worked to be the best versions of ourselves and to change the lives of families in the Houston community, we knew it all had to start within us. Surprisingly, I feel like that change was achieved by getting to know each of the Greyshirts that came to volunteer each week.  

We didn’t have a campfire to gather around, per say, but we did have a ramp, chairs, a Bluetooth speaker (or sometimes instruments) and some Guns & Oil beer.  

Listening to the stories of Greyshirts encouraged us to share our own, and to let down our walls. To be vulnerable. And we did that many times late into the night, long after we should have gone to bed. Taking in other’s stories and learning to share our own was one of the many small steps in the healing and self-discovery process for us in the program. 

Daniels with the Rebuild office dog “Cash.”

The Dog Days are Over 

My last day at the Rebuild was one of the toughest days to get through.  

My desk wouldn’t be mine anymore. There wouldn’t be another morning meeting loaded with fun banter There wouldn’t be anymore beer runs. No more hanging around on the ramp with the volunteers. This was the end of a chapter. 

When the hour came to start clearing out, I packed my last few items into a rental car and readied to make the solo drive back to Virginia. The end of the fellowship had come too quickly for me, and I was not ready to let go of what I had built. I had poured my heart and soul into this project and I wanted to see it through to the end. 

As it got closer to five o’clock of my final day, I could feel it coming: the inevitable tears that would come as I drove away from the warehouse for the last time. I quickly went around and said bye to everyone before it became too much, and the tears would break free. I narrowly escaped, too.  

Knock It All Down, Build Up Something New  

As I look back and reflect on my year as a Clay Hunt Fellow, I think of all the struggles, failures, small victories, and major triumphs. The individual moments that helped me grow into who I am were brutal at times, but I wouldn’t trade them for the world.  

I am a better person than I was +1,110 days ago when I entered the Clay Hunt Fellowship. Not only did I pick up a few new nicknames, five different hairstyles, a tattoo, skills in finance and logistics, and the skills and know-how needed to reconstruct an entire house—I came out of the fellowship with countless skills that I didn’t have before, including, most importantly, more confidence in myself and in who I am. ∇

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