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Alberta, Canada. Brent wears a Habitat shirt with the slogan “A World Where
Everyone Has a Decent Place to Live.”[/caption]

Stuart Beals has helped build more than a dozen houses on two continents, and he doesn’t live in any of them.

For more than five years, Stuart has volunteered with Lawrence Habitat for Humanity. He finished his 16th build this summer. Most of his projects have benefited families in the Lawrence area, but this summer he traveled to southern Malawi in Africa to build houses there.

Stuart started volunteering with Habitat about a year after he retired from Johnson County Community College. He started the school’s photography program in the 1970s, then transitioned to digital imaging and interactive media as technology advanced. In retirement, he was looking for a way to contribute his time and skills to others. Stuart had some construction experience, so Habitat seemed like a natural choice.

“I just like the fact that it’s so tangible,” Stuart said. “Maybe I’m kind of a knuckle-dragger, but I like the sheer physicality of building a house. I like working outdoors; I always have.”

Stuart quickly learned how to do a lot of new things on the job site, from following the surveyors’ pins to laying the foundation to building stairs to installing trim. (Volunteers can’t do any jobs that the law requires be done by a contractor: electrical, plumbing, HVAC and the like.) There is a full-time licensed construction supervisor on every build. On designated “build days,” groups of volunteers are assigned to a specific task. Usually these are groups of co-workers or members of an organization who sign up for a one-day project. Long-term volunteers like Stuart help teach and lead the day workers, and they come out to work on days when the groups aren’t there.

In Malawi, however, the job was radically different. Instead of building three-bedroom homes with drywall and siding, Stuart’s Habitat crew was making bricks out of the surrounding soil and well water from a bore hole.

“They were tiny houses by our standards. It was a different experience.” The homes were built for families who have taken in orphans.

This wasn’t Stuart’s first trip to Africa – soon after he retired, he and his wife, Nancy, spent two months there. “Africa cast a spell on me,” he said. And Nancy loves to travel in Europe. But the freedom to travel was overshadowed by the burden of making sure their home was maintained and safe while they were gone. That’s one reason Nancy and Stuart began looking for a senior living community.

They had many friends their own age whose parents were still living in their homes but struggling to do so without help. Nancy and Stuart didn’t want their own children to worry about them. Nancy was a nurse, so she also applied her knowledge to their research for a place to live. They found Lawrence Presbyterian Manor had an “unblemished record” in quality of nursing care.

“That was super important. We really did our homework, and Presbyterian Manor stood out in the quality of care. The fact that it’s a nonprofit is reflected in the values they bring to their care,” Stuart said.

Now, when they want to jet off to another country or continent – or just to see their sons in Washington state – they’re secure in knowing their home is in good hands.

For more information about volunteering with Lawrence Habitat for Humanity, visit their website at

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