Written by Rob McCorkle
Photography by Steve Macintyre
On an unseasonably warm late January afternoon, Meghan Petak kneels before an outdoor spigot, trying to clean tiny splotches of liquid tar from her hands and arms after a day of roofing in the Elks area, where five Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity homes are being built.
Meghan is one of 14 out-of-town volunteers who participate in Habitat for Humanity’s RV Care-A-Vanner’s program, traveling from state to state to help build affordable housing for families with limited means. This is the Utah native’s second time in Las Cruces, having worked on Habitat homes four years ago. She cites her love of the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate as the primary reason she came back.
“It’s one of our favorites because they do without a lot so they can give back to the families,” Meghan says. “Las Cruces is a nice spot. We love to hike in the mountains.”
She and her partner Tom arrived in Las Cruces from a Habitat “build” in Santa Fe after the Christmas holidays to spend this spring helping complete the Habitat homes, before moving on to Beaumont, Texas for disaster building in the wake of a recent hurricane.
Other Care-A-Vanners spend varying amounts of time working on the homes. They are committed to working a minimum of two weeks. In return for their volunteer labor, the RVers receive a free parking spot for their recreational vehicle at the two RV campgrounds adjacent to the Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity offices, free utilities, free WiFi, and access to an onsite laundry room.
“The RVers program is valuable to our community in the sense that they supplement our local volunteers by traveling to our affiliate and helping us build our homes,” Maria Vasquez, executive director of the local Habitat affiliate, says. “We can host 12 RVs at any given time. We have about 10 building sessions a year from October through March.”
Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity has constructed 111 homes in its 30 years of existence. The typical Habitat home has three bedrooms and two baths and is roughly 1,200 square feet. Thanks to the donation of building materials and volunteer labor, each home costs about $80,000 to build and is valued at roughly $120,000. Qualifying partner families receive a no-profit, no-interest mortgage with an average payment of $500. Most qualifying families have overcome a number of hardships and have shown a fervent desire to better their lives and those of their children.
Tom, who pulls a 24-foot travel trailer around the country doing volunteer home construction, says there are still many people who labor under the misconception that Habitat homes are a handout. He likes to recite the organization’s motto:
“Giving a hand up, not a hand out.” All future homeowners are required to attend classes dealing with finances and other topics, and must contribute 500 hours of “sweat equity.”
Fellow Care-A-Vanners Tony and Mary Campbell, who are in Las Cruces for the sixth consecutive year, cite working along future homeowners as one of the many benefits of volunteering for Habitat. The retired couple heard about the international organization while watching President Jimmy Carter on TV years ago extolling Habitat’s virtues. They called the organization’s national office in Americus, Georgia, to volunteer and caught a severe case of what’s jokingly referred to as “Infectious Habititis.” There were even a few years after the 2008 economic meltdown, when the Habitat for Humanity RVer program was in jeopardy, that they stepped up to run it on a national level.
The Campbells, who retired in 2000 from jobs in Detroit, live full time in their 2001 Bounder motorhome, traveling “with a purpose” from Habitat build to Habitat build. The retirees are representative of the vast majority of thousands of Care-A-Vanners—retirees in their fifties, sixties, and seventies—looking to do more than just putter away their golden years.
“Baby boomers are starting to retire and buy motorhomes, so they’re going to need something to do,” Mary, 80, says with conviction. “Studies have shown volunteering is good for your health and you live longer.”
Why do the Campbells and others choose to be Care-A-Vanners? Tony, 70, cites an online Habitat promotional video that notes there are a million reasons, but folks just need to try it.
“You could volunteer at the local library or someplace else, but this way you get to travel and work for free and see the country,” Tony enthuses. “Care-A-Vanners are the most wonderful people. We now know people all over the country by working with them on Habitat sites.”
Some of these traveling gypsy builders end up so enamored of a particular destination that they decide to park their RVs and put down permanent roots. It has happened in Las Cruces.
“Many traveling volunteers come to love our community and retire here,” says Maria. “Our board president, Drew McPhee, and his wife were once Care-A-Vanners who had volunteered here. Now he’s serving Habitat in a different capacity.”
Begun in 1988, the RV Care-A-Vanner program has grown to more than 140 builds a year in the United States and Canada. Volunteers also have the opportunity to work with an international affiliate on at least one build per year, renting RVs in a foreign destination and building homes while traveling.
Some volunteers possess few if any construction skills, but receive on-the-job training from fellow RVers under the supervision of a Habitat construction superintendent. From framing and roofing to carpentry and flooring, volunteers in Las Cruces work from 8am to 2pm Tuesday through Saturday to build Habitat dwellings.
Tony says, “If you’re lucky enough to be at the end of the project, you get to go to the home dedication. It’s very rewarding, and if you like construction, it’s very fulfilling.”
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To receive the RV Care-A-Vanner newsletter or receive more information about the program, contact the national RV coordinator at 229-410-7534 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
To find out more about local volunteer opportunities:
call, 575-525-0475 or visit, lascruceshabitat.org