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When Diane DeBaise heard about a program to build homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina, she dug out her 35-year-old old tool belt and joined 21 other Realtors from Pennsylvania for an all-expenses paid vacation.

The only thing the Meadville real estate agent and the others had to do was work eight hours a day, pounding nails, cutting boards and all the other tasks that go along with building a home.

She said the project started when Habitat for Humanity contacted the National Association of Realtors to request assistance. The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors put up $25,000 to pay the group’s expenses for airfare, motels and food.

Upon arriving in New Orleans, team members were taken to their motels by van and then out to dinner in the French Quarter. After that, it was five days of work, hard work. But DeBaise was ready. A one-time member of the labor gang at the former Viscose textile plant in Meadville, she switched to a new career selling real estate when the plant closed, but she kept her leather tool belt.

For one week in August, instead of selling homes, she and the other Realtors were building them.

Work started at 8 a.m. daily. The heat index was 112 degrees the first day on the job and two days later, it was 118 degrees, said DeBaise. A canopy tent had been erected for workers to take breaks under shade. She noted the group’s leader had been a paramedic, so the leader watched the workers carefully to detect any heat-related medical problems.

Within 45 minutes after beginning the day, “we looked like we just got out of a shower,” she said of how heavily they were sweating. “My hair was absolutely soaked.”

She did a lot over the course of the week, from running saws to doing trim work. “I also helped erect the walls,” she said. “We hauled lumber, too,” she said, adding it was very heavy. “I used muscles I didn’t know I had.”

The group also got to tour downtown New Orleans and see the devastation. She explained one problem with trying to get through all the red tape is that families handed down properties to each other for generations but never filed deeds. That made it difficult to trace ownership, which is one reason for the bureaucratic delays.

Two years after the storm, some homes remain empty and street people have started living in them despite the fact that the homes are rife with mold. She was particularly moved when she saw that some of the homes’ exterior walls still showed messages like “one dead in attic,” which told what rescuers found in the days after the storm.

One of the homes DeBaise helped build will be sold to a single woman with four children. Habitat for Humanity requires the homeowner to do at least 90 hours of work — with a minimum of 60 hours on his or her own project and 30 hours for another. She was pleased to see the mother working side-by-side with the volunteers.

As the crew prepared to leave, one worker said to them, “You Pennsylvania people sure know how to work.”

Explaining why she signed up for the week of work, DeBaise said, “I always feel like I have been blessed. I raised two children and life and God have been good to me. I believe it is important that people ought to give back to the community.”

She said while some people go on vacation and bring back memories of the beach or fun times, she has satisfaction knowing that she has helped another person in need.

She plans to go again next year. “But I would like it to be a cooler month, at least down to 100 degrees,” she laughed.

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