The first two groups of families in the Self-Help housing area have been working on their homes since early December, literally building a community while digging foundations and hauling gravel, simultaneously creating the kind of neighborhood where people really know each other.

The families have been working together since early December, said Susana Hernandez, who was working at the site with her daughter and several other women, on Friday, Jan. 24.

After a quick discussion of what was needed, Hernandez instructed the others on using a tool to cut rebar, which will be part of the footing.

The work goes on Tuesday through Saturday. Each family has committed to having someone working on the site for a total of 40 hours each week, and they can work more, if they choose.

Hernandez’s group has been preparing their sites for pouring the foundations. What her group has done so far, she said, is “actually, a lot of digging. A lot of digging, a lot of removal of dirt; shoveling gravel, sand. We did the trenches; now we’re working on frames, and then we should be moving on to the next phase.”

Asked if she’s learned since she’s been on the job, “Oh, yeah,” she said, “I’m learning a lot!”

The work is enjoyable, she said, “but it is exhausting at the same time, because it’s stuff we’ve never done.”

“But, I mean, at the end of the day,” she added, “it’s just the sacrifice we gotta do, to build a home for our families, you know?”

Hernandez has a family of eight, and is building a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house.

Her daughter, Aubrey Garcia, 18, was working with Hernandez at the site on Friday. She has accompanied her grandfather and other family members on construction job sites, she said. “He tells me stories, and I’ll go out there (on job sites) with him,” she said. “It’s stuff that I know, but I’m learning new things, as well.”

Self-Help Enterprises Superintendent Ismael Barajas is responsible for overseeing construction of one of the two groups of 10 houses currently underway. The main difference between the Self-Help job sites and traditional construction, Barajas said, is that “the homeowners get to participate in building their homes... And, to really put their hands into something that’s going to be their own home, I think that’s really a blessing,” he said, adding, “they kind of see it, like, ‘Hey, you know what – I remember when I did this,’ and, ‘this summer, I remember, we were pouring the concrete...’”

Subcontractors are brought in for specialty work when required, Barajas said, “but for the most part, we do everything.”

The homes must pass the same inspections as any other residential construction projects.

Two foundations had been poured that day, Barajas said, and the homeowners had done all of the work. The crew on hand is trained on whatever tasks need to be done on a given day, using any site that is ready for the work.

His group, he said, has almost caught up to the one next door that’s now pouring foundations, and it hasn’t hurt that there’s been a bit of friendly rivalry. “We just need to keep up that energy,” he said, “every day.”

Prior to working for Self-Help, Barajas worked for the Fresno Conservation Corp. (CCC) he said.

Editor’s note: The CCC is an environmentally-focused division of the state government that offers people between the ages of 18 and 25 a year of paid work in challenging situations. The website lists the Conservation Corp. motto as: “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions and more!” More information at ccc.ca.gov

Barajas was hired away from the CCC by Self-Help, he said. “We actually have a partnership with them. It was time for movement; I made the choice, and it’s been good,” he said. He started with the company last June, he said.

Barajas must teach general construction skills to a sometimes-changing group of people with varying levels of experience, many of whom have never held a tool. Fortunately, a few have worked in the trades. “I try my best to kind of really tailor to what they know, and kind of help them understand why things should be done a certain way. So, sometimes it’s pretty easy to say, ‘Hey, you know, grab the shovel and move this sand from here to here. You have those people, and then you have the people (who are) a little more skilled, and (who have) been hands-on already.”

Along with providing construction experience and background, Barajas works to “kind of ease everybody in,” to a group he described as “diverse… you have different age groups, and things of that nature,” he said.

This is Barajas’ third group, he said. The first was in Madera, and the second in Winton.

“To my understanding, most of this (neighborhood) is gonna be Self-Help, so hopefully that kind of continues, and gives those in need an opportunity to buy a home.”

Jeanette Barajas (no relation), who was among a group of four women cutting and laying rebar last Friday morning, explained how the process works. “We work on this house, then move to another one, and we keep on going. Everyone works on every house,” she said. “This is our first time, doing this,” she added, meaning that none of the women in the group that day had any construction experience.

In the two months that the group has been working on their homes, Jeanette said, “we’re kind of starting to know each other a little bit better.”

Construction is expected to take 10 months, she said, based on labor of 40 hours per week per household, although things could go more quickly if the builders put in more time and effort, she said. “It just depends on us,” she said, “and the weather.”

On of the first day of construction, Jeanette said, she was nervous. By the end of that day, she was tired, “even though when we started it was kind of easier; it was just marking. And I personally got tired on that,” she said.

Today’s task, laying rebar, has also required a lot of the novice builders.

“Like right now,” she added, “because of the rebar, I have a headache,” from cutting and measuring, and “just thinking how it goes.”

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