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A Vacation to Remember

A Potomac mom decides to make a difference for others during her time off.

For her summer vacation, Potomac resident Melissa Banks headed to Taos, N.M., a resort town known as “Hollywood West” because of its celebrity visitors. But instead of relaxing at the posh ski resort nearby, Banks helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

“I decided to do this because my three kids are away doing various summer activities and I had time off from work,” said Banks, a single mom who works as a preschool teacher in Rockville. “It was incredibly rewarding to do. It feels good to give back, especially in such a unique way instead of just writing out a check.”

For five days from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Banks and 17 other volunteers from across the country (and one from Canada) laid adobe brick, installed insulation and applied stucco. The two homes they labored on will house working poor families who also helped in the construction.

“Each adobe brick weighs about 35 pounds, and you have to lift them up, and literally we’re using mud to slap them up there,” said Banks.

“When the walls were low it was easier but as we got higher we had to get up on scaffolding,” she added. “Lining the adobe bricks up that high and the mud up that high became very challenging. Everybody worked as a team and kind of fell into the routine of what their job was.”

“Melissa had several [jobs], and a lot of it was nailing chicken wire to the walls in preparation for putting the stucco-type mud on the outside,” said Ronnie Dunevant, a team leader on the trip who has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity for 15 years. He resides in Roxboro, N.C.

“She was mixing mud and laying brick — an extremely filthy job,” he added. “When you finish at the end of day, you look like a 10-year-old child that’s been playing in the mud, which was basically what we were doing.”

Friend Sue Harris Phillips of Rockville was not surprised by Banks’ decision to spend her summer vacation sweating with adobe bricks and mud.

“As long as I’ve known her, Melissa’s always done things for other people,” said Phillips. “She helped me meet my current husband by getting me involved with an AIDS drive years ago. So it came as no surprise to me when she decided to use her vacation to do Habitat for Humanity.”

THE VOLUNTEERS also sampled the culture of New Mexico. The group went whitewater rafting, visited San Jose, and observed one of the oldest Native American pueblos in the country. One of the most rewarding aspects of the trip was the friendship that developed.

“I went really not having expectations, just being open to whatever the experience was going to be,” said Banks. “It was far more than I ever imagined it could be. I was able to give back to a community in need and also make friendships with 17 other people.”

“When you go on a team of 18 people and live and work together, a lot of the activities involved are taking care of each other, being team-oriented and putting self-interest in the back seat,” said Dunevant. “Most of the people we take are really good at that, and Melissa was exceptionally good at that.”

The volunteers stayed at an old lodge near the work site.

“The floors squeaked, the water pressure was low, and sometimes we didn’t have enough water to take showers,” said Dunevant. “There were upwards of 50 animals there, and they usually started their roar at about 3:30 in the morning.

“The charm of the place was the large common room where people hung out together and visited with each other from early in the morning to late at night,” he added. “It contributes to the relationships that form on these teams. The people you meet on these trips become e-mail and phone friends long after the trip is over.”

THE VISIT gave the volunteers a window into the poverty of Taos.

“There are a lot of wealthy people who have vacation homes in Taos, so there’s money there, but since it’s basically vacation homes, people don’t commit to the community,” said Banks. “The executive director [of Habitat for Humanity] was telling us that there’s no middle class in Taos — there’s the wealthy and then there’s people in poverty who are working two or three jobs just to put food on the table.”

Taos takes its name from the Taos Pueblo, a Native American village. However, Native Americans and Hispanics make up most of those in poverty.

“A representative from the tribe came and talked to us about the struggle that Native Americans have had trying to get ownership of land.”

One of the homes that Banks contributed to will benefit a single mom named Bella who has four children and a fifth on the way. Habitat for Humanity’s selection of homeowners is a long, rigorous process. Bella has a full-time job, is earning a college degree, and completed her “sweat equity” by working for 500 hours on the home with her children.

“Living in Potomac and being pretty privileged, I think this really showed [my kids] what one can do and how one can give back,” said Banks. “It’s hard to explain, the real feeling of what’s in my heart that will be there forever. It’s definitely a life experience, and I recommend it to everyone.”

The team leaders were impressed with Banks’ character and worth ethic.

“We identified her as a potential team leader for future trips,” said team leader Janice Lee of Miami. “Her sense of humor, her ability to bring the team together, and to identify situations and act accordingly were absolutely fantastic. Her spirit and sense of humor came forth in everything she did.

“If something was missing or something was needed, Melissa would recognize it immediately,” added Lee. “She was a leader that everybody came to and everyone loved. She was very special to all of us.”

“That’s just like Melissa — she jumps in there and takes the bull by the horns,” said Phillips. “She’s very effective in leading people and getting work done. She works like a demon — everyone else will quit and she’ll still be there working. It sounds like she took the teenagers [on the trip] under her wing too.

“She has such enthusiasm for everything she does,” added Phillips. “It’s just infectious. It’s obvious to anyone around her. You can’t help but smile.”