The formula is simple: hammering before hiking.

Some 40 young adults, all members of a Hudson, Wis., church group, are in Belgrade this week, slaving away on three Habitat for Humanity homes going up along Northern Pacific Street.

Come next Monday, however, they'll be tromping up the trails of Gallatin Canyon, breathing fresh alpine air, swimming in clear lakes. The important thing: no more pounding nails.

'I see the mountains up there, and I want to go camping,' said Sam Kuenn, 15, eager to make the break from construction worker to mountain man. 'It's my first time out to Montana.'

For some 20 years, the ecumenical 'Mishpack' group - a mix of young Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians from Hudson - has made the pilgrimage to Montana at irregular intervals to pitch in on a variety of service projects.

Since 1991, when the Gallatin Valley Habitat for Humanity was founded, they've been back four times to help on a house, always with the enticement of an additional week of camping in the Spanish Peaks area.

'It's nice, because it's a vacation, and you're actually doing something, too,' said Andrea Johnson, 20, stripping copper wire from insulators in the cool shade of one of the nearly finished homes.

'And you get to come to Montana,' Johnson added with a smile.

In less than a decade, the local Habitat for Humanity Chapter -with help from volunteer groups like Mishpack that rotate through the community during the summer and spring breaks - have completed 10 houses. Five are in Bozeman and five are in Belgrade, but that's not by design, said project director Jenny Borland.

'We'd build in Manhattan or Three Forks if we had the land to build on,' she said. 'We're always looking for deals on land. That's probably our biggest expense.'

Once complete, the houses are sold to 'partner families' for around $50,000 - with 20-year, interest-free loans to help folks with limited resources turn the dream of owning their own home into reality.

Borland wants to make one thing clear - those who want to live in one of these homes have to work for them, too.

Prospective buyers must put in at least 500 hours of 'sweat equity' - pounding, sawing and drilling - to qualify for a house of their own.

'We'll probably have 1,000 hours before the winter is over,' said Shawn Goulet, a Bozeman resident whose family, including his wife, Heidi, and their two small children, is on the list for a Habitat house in Belgrade at Southwood Circle he expects will be built by next spring.

'It's not a handout, it's a handup,' he said of the program as he hauled lumber. 'You have to put your time in.

'It was a matter of not being able to afford a home in the Gallatin Valley, and what were our options,' Goulet said. 'This seemed to be the best option, with all the fellowship.'

It isn't just kids and prospective homeowners who are pitching in.

Volunteers like 82-year-old Marshall Gray also are involved, doing everything from helping organize fund-raising rummage sales - there was one last week in Belgrade - to hauling loads of donated lumber.

Gray said he's helped on all of the Habitat for Humanity homes since the program started locally in 1991, although he wants to make it perfectly clear he's just one of many folks who help out.

'I think it's a very worthwhile situation,' said Gray, who retired from a woodworking plant in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1990 before returning to southwestern Montana for his golden years.

'You pleasure you see in these people's faces, when most of them couldn't afford a home, that makes a world of difference,' he said, adding he can't imagine spending his free time any differently. 'I really believe in this program. It's my golf game.'


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