Members of the Golden Hammer crew on a build for Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay.
Members of the Golden Hammer crew — from left, Ken Averell, Lynn Comesky, John Reisdorf and Eric Nelson — on a build for Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Tuesdays with the Hammers, Habitat for Humanity’s master volunteer craftsmen

Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay has many volunteers, but none are as seasoned as the veterans known as the Golden Hammer crew. But as one Habitat staffer and homeowner says, even the crustiest of tough guys are known to shed a tear when a new homeowner gets their keys.

They take all comers at Habitat for Humanity. Anyone is welcome as volunteers to build homes for low-income people. If you’re a master carpenter or a skilled contractor, your skills are very much needed. On the other hand, if you have trouble distinguishing a hammer from a ham sandwich, there’s a place for you, too.

But Tuesdays, at the local chapter Habit for Humanity Monterey Bay, belong to the Golden Hammer crew.

The Golden Hammers are a fraternity of veteran builders who have been working together for Habitat for more than 20 years, some of them closer to 30. They are largely retired professionals — engineers, dentists, analysts, city planners. They are most often brought in to do fine finish work and carpentry — cabinets, doors, flooring, wainscoting and other interior work.

The Hammers recently lost their most senior member, a World War II veteran in his 90s. Now, that most senior position belongs to 88-year-old Jim Chambers.

At 88, Jim Chambers is the senior member of the Golden Hammer volunteer group.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I retired at 62 and I started doing this four years later,” Chambers said inside a house under construction in the heart of Live Oak. On the Tuesday after Father’s Day, I visited the Golden Hammer crew at their latest Habitat construction site during their lunch break. They were doing finish work in the second of five duplexes to be built on a property near Rodeo Creek Gulch.

The fellowship of the Golden Hammers consists of roughly a dozen volunteers who among them have helped build more than 50 houses throughout Santa Cruz County. Largely because of their advanced age, they aren’t the fastest or strongest construction crew in the county. But like a stalwart jazz combo, their longstanding partnership has allowed them to work together intimately and efficiently.

Ken Averall is one of the few Hammers who doesn’t live locally. He lives in San Jose, but makes the drive over the hill regularly. He looked for a Habitat crew in the South Bay to join, but kept coming back to Santa Cruz. “It’s so much fun to be part of a group of guys who have a real good time together,” he said.

As is often the case with older men of a certain generation, that jovial atmosphere often comes in the form of needling each other. “We start at 8 o’clock in the morning,” said veteran Lynn Comesky. “Usually someone is insulting someone else before too long.”

“As a (regular) volunteer, sometimes you get up in the morning,” added fellow Hammer Eric Nelson, “and you think, ‘Where is it I’m supposed to volunteer?’ But when you’re with a bunch of guys who are friends, you think, ‘Hey, I get to go do stuff with my friends today.’ And that makes a big difference.”

Tuesdays are typically blocked off for the Golden Hammer crew to volunteer with Habitat.
Tuesdays are typically blocked off for the Golden Hammer crew — from left, Lynn Comesky, Ken Averell, Jim Chambers, John Reisdorf, Paul Kaneko, Alexander Gaguine and Eric Nelson, with construction manager Mike McIlwain — to volunteer with Habitat.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At 76, Paul Kaneko is on the younger end of the Golden Hammers crew. In the 1990s, he worked as a city planner for the City of Watsonville. It was while doing his job of processing permit applications that he first encountered Habit for Humanity Monterey Bay.

“I thought, ‘What a great group,’” said Kaneko as he entertained a contingent from Habitat in his office. He helped them through the permit process on a property near downtown Watsonville. “We had a good time and laughed a lot. On the way out of the office, I told them, ‘If I ever left the city, I’ll come volunteer with you guys.’” A few years later, that’s exactly how it happened.

Kaneko said he knew nearly nothing about construction when he began working at Habitat 25 years ago: “Everything I learned about construction, I learned from Habitat.”

"Every day I feel so blessed when I wake up," said Allie Wilson, a Habitat staffer who is also a homeowner.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Allie Wilson, the local Habitat chapter’s volunteer manager, works to keep the Golden Hammers together as a group, by reserving Tuesdays for them exclusively. Much of Habitat’s volunteer force is made of beginners or lightly experienced volunteers, many of whom are mentored by more seasoned longtimers. That mentoring takes place largely on other days. Tuesdays are for the Hammers.

Habitat’s process of building low-cost homes for qualified applicants depends largely on “sweat equity,” required volunteer work from the would-be homeowners selected for the program. Those homeowners can put in their required hours in a number of ways that don’t involve highly skilled carpentry work.

Beyond her job as a staffer at Habitat Monterey Bay, Wilson is a Habitat homeowner herself, having gone through the rigorous application process like everyone else. Years before, she had unexpectedly lost a longtime job in Santa Cruz, and lost her husband to cancer. She couched-surf for a while, she said — and finally found a unit through the Habitat program: “Every day I feel so blessed when I wake up.”

On the day I visited the Golden Hammers, another Habitat homeowner was on the grounds. Kali Campbell is a former engineer and is now a math teacher at Santa Cruz High School. She, her 8-year-old daughter, and her mother will soon move into an adjoining duplex, partially built by the Hammers.

“Early August is my move-in, as of now,” she said, standing in what will soon be her living room. “The people who work here are all so nice. We’ve become friends.”

Usually, Campbell gets her sweat-equity hours in on the weekends. But since school is out for the summer, she sometimes gets to visit during the weekdays, including Golden Tuesday. She’s learned how to use a chop saw and a table saw. She’s worked building some fencing, as well as lots of digging and cleaning.

Soon-to-be homeowner Kali Campbell, a math teacher at Santa Cruz High.
“There is no way I could stay in Santa Cruz if it weren’t for Habitat,” said soon-to-be homeowner Kali Campbell, a math teacher at Santa Cruz High. “I’d like this to be a home I can be in forever.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Because I’m a math teacher, I understand how to create a perpendicular line on a piece of paper. But doing this stuff can be a little intimidating. So this has been an eye-opening experience,” she said. “I talk to my students all the time about what kinds of things they can do and that taking more math keeps so many doors open for you.”

Campbell grew up locally, most on Cayuga Street in Midtown, and attended the same high school where she is now faculty. She had known little about Habitat for Humanity, other than that Jimmy Carter was its most famous volunteer. She did not know that Habitat operated locally (the local Habitat organization covers Santa Cruz and Monterey counties). She had returned to Santa Cruz after working as an engineer in San Diego for several years, with a new mission to become a teacher. But housing was an issue.

The first time she applied for a Habitat home, she didn’t qualify. However, a Habitat staffer encouraged her to keep trying. Eventually, she got into the program.

“There is no way I could stay in Santa Cruz if it weren’t for Habitat,” she said. “I’d like this to be a home I can be in forever.”

Symbolically, that “forever” will begin in July, when her new home will be the latest Habitat for Humanity home dedication. Usually, the new homeowner, after many months of both administrative and physical labor, is awarded a beautiful hardwood box, built by master woodworker John Reisdorf, a Golden Hammer in good standing. Inside the box is the key to the brand-new home.

“When we have that dedication and they open that box,” said Wilson, pausing to regain her composure. “I’m going to cry because it’s so emotional. But when they open that box, there’s not a dry eye in the place.” Then, she gestures to the Golden Hammers, ready to get back to work after a lunch break. “And that includes all these tough guys.”

For information on volunteer opportunities at Habitat of Humanity Monterey Bay, go here.