The house on Second Street in Kenai is still bare boards and concrete floor, but that doesn’t stop Bill Radtke from seeing it as the home it will become.
The longtime Central Peninsula Habitat for Humanity board member and volunteer can rattle off the details of the house off the top of his head: square footage, insulation, windows. But he also knows details about the building the family destined to live there will find useful.
“This is going to be an entryway where the kids can take off their coats,” he said, stepping into a separated space that still yawns open for lack of a front door. “… And there’s a garage. Alaskans, it’s hard when you don’t have a garage — a place to put your snow tires, your boots, your tools, all that.”
Habitat for Humanity, a national nonprofit with local chapters, builds houses for families currently living in substandard housing with volunteer labor. Once completed, the house will go to a family the chapter’s board has selected. The recipients have to put in 500 sweat-equity hours and meet a number of qualifying conditions — income eligibility and living in dangerous, substandard housing are among them — before the board approves them. Once they move in, they will pay back the total amount Habitat for Humanity paid to build the house over 20 years, with no interest.
After about two decades of serving on the board of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, Radtke is stepping down. There’s no particular reason other than “it’s time,” he said. It doesn’t mean he’ll be slowing down, though — he and his wife Sharon are planning several trips abroad within the year and he said he’ll stay involved with Habitat for Humanity in the future.
The organization has built more than a dozen houses on the central peninsula, many in Kenai, and plans to keep going. Scattered around the neighborhood near the Second Street house are a number of other lots donated by the city of Kenai that will be the sites for houses in the future, Radtke said.
Part of the reason the organization tends to build houses in the city is to avoid the additional cost of the utilities for houses out in the borough, he said.
“(Outside the city) you have to put in sewer, drill a well,” he said. “It just adds up.”
He’s been involved with most of them, speaking to the Kenai City Council about land donations and sweating over the construction himself. Most recently, he’s been working with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District on a potential partnership to invite the vocational technical education students from the high schools to work in the Habitat for Humanity houses so they can get some firsthand education.
It’s full circle for Radtke, who taught at Kenai Middle School for about a decade before retiring. Before that, he was briefly a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and taught for a number of years at schools in rural Alaska, including at Nanwalek on the south side of Kachemak Bay.
“It’s a perfect blend,” he said. “I’ve always been concerned about the kids … this could help them build the skills they need.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Radtke said when he was young he identified three things he wanted to do: to study forestry, to go to Australia and to see Alaska. He accomplished all three, graduating with a degree in civil engineering and working for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon before taking an opportunity to go to Australia. However, the job he was offered in Sydney didn’t fit the bill when he got there, he said. So, he turned down the job and jumped on a train to Perth to see what work he could find.
After teaching in Australia for a number of years, he visited Alaska to hunt and fish and fell in love with the Interior, eventually teaching in the rural schools for a number of years before returning to Fairbanks, marrying, and eventually going back to teaching in the rural schools before coming south.
And it’s hardly the last adventure. Every year, he and Sharon make a list of things they want to do and run down the list, checking off new destinations and projects, he said. This year, they’re headed for Prague — “it’s on the list,” he said.
Radtke’s conversation is full of other people’s stories and names. He said he still sees the former house recipients in the community and is happy to see them doing well. They all had to put in the 500 hours building the houses in the first place, but it didn’t have to be all one person — the 500 hours can be split among family members and friends, he said, so a whole recipient family can be working on a house together and build relationships doing it. Other volunteers, some of whom are laymen and some of whom are professionals, donate their time and skills as well, he said.
“You meet all these people that are so community minded,” he said. “And it’s wonderful.”
Habitat for Humanity board member Jo Watts noted the projects Radtke had been working on recently, including the lot donations and the school district partnership.
“He’s been on the board for over 20 years,” she said. “He just does a lot in the community.”
Radtke encouraged other people to jump into volunteering on Habitat for Humanity’s local chapter board. The board itself always needs participants to help organize the actual effort building the houses as well as selecting the families, which is a hard job, he said.
As Radtke stood in the shell of the unfinished house on Second Street, a cheerful call came from the garage. A man walked through the framing boards, a man who Radtke recognized immediately as a former house recipient and recalled details about his family immediately. Just before leaving, the man offered to share some smoked salmon before calling a cheerful goodbye and a gibe that the new house would be even better than the one he received through Habitat. As the man’s car engine roared to life and he took off, Radtke smiled.
“See, that, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.