Hope Floats

13 Aug
Nick Finan at work on 2011 Habitat house, smiley face courtesy of his co-workers.

Nick Finan at Habitat house, smiley face courtesy of his co-workers.

One thing about working on a college campus: Just when you think you’ve seen everything – and a few too many times at that – a student comes along and throws you a much-needed curve.

Take letters of recommendations. After 21 years, I’d come to think I’d  crafted them for every imaginable context: No letter left to write that I haven’t written already.

Enter Nick Finan – who this month gave me my first-ever opportunity to recommend a student to (are you ready for it?) the International Yacht Restoration School.

Given, my qualifications to evaluate someone’s potential for building seagoing vessels is, to put it kindly, limited. On a good day, I can drive every other nail straight; as for the water, this is the guy who, in Boy Scouts, flunked canoeing merit badge twice in three weeks. “I don’t know,” the counselor said with a tone of empathetic sadness that was somehow worse than the failure itself,  “you just can’t master the J stroke.”

But Nick had his reasons for asking – and they’re the same reasons I am writing about him in this blog. For Nick twice came to my hometown of Tuscaloosa as part of the Assumption SEND program, each time spending a week helping the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate rebuild a town struck by a devastating tornado that killed 54 people.

Service often gives students the valuable chance to explore possible vocations or avocations, while also exploring ways they can serve their communities. In Nick’s case, helping build houses tapped into childhood tendencies that had since been relegated to the back burner. Take the time that, as a child, he wanted a bow-and-arrow set: “In fifth grade I decided to attempt to make a ‘real’ bow rather than just a stick bow and arrow. It was to be made of a bass tree trunk. The project took me at least four months using mostly a hatchet, hand plane and chisels. When it was finished, it was stained and varnished.”

Nick smiles at autographs on board at construction site.

Nick smiles at student autographs on board at Habitat Tuscaloosa construction site.

A decade later, Nick found the same joys in working on the Habitat homes in Tuscaloosa. “Actually, my service in Alabama, especially this last trip, did sway me toward boat building in one way or another. Obviously there is a technical aspect of building houses when it comes to carpentry, just as boat building requires a high level of technical skills.” The first trip he worked under the supervision of Habitat’s Dewayne Searcy; the next time around, this January, he learned the craft of cabinet installation from Peter Salemme. On the second trip, he was a semester from graduating, and therefore all the more curious about the life paths of others – particularly those in construction.

“After working on hanging cabinets with Peter Salemme for most of the week, he asked me to work with him on a special project at the camp installing the electricity for RV docks. I learned how he had a family back home with a wife and three sons, but somehow he felt he needed to be with Habitat for Humanity working with volunteers to build houses for those in need. I thought that was interesting that he made a life changing decision to do what he felt he was called to do rather than what was expected by others.”  At the goodbye barbecue at my mother’s house, Nick got to talk with another Habitat worker, Steven, who had made a similar change.

This all gave Nick pause for thought, and not just about the need to serve others. “There’s something to be said about making a living doing what you are good at and are passionate about. Last summer while taking a solo trip on my dad’s boat, I thought about how I would love to start a boat-building business where I would design, build and sell relatively small boats. I dismissed this idea as far-fetched, for I had no idea where to start and was working on an unrelated degree.”

But with no job in his field in sight, Nick resumed his line of inquiry. “I found that many amateur boat builders use the stitch and glue method where you start with a plywood core and laminate the whole boat in resin and composite material. The result is a high-performing boat that is relatively quick to build in comparison to completely wooden boats. Although materials are slightly expensive, I decided to go for it. Even if my business idea was off, I would still end up with a boat – and much more knowledge about boat building.”

This led to his discovery that Newport, RI was a center for yacht-building, as well as home to the IYRS.

Nick says that, among other things, his Habitat for Humanity experiences “re-sparked that interest in creating something useful and beautiful out of nothing.”

Despite a challenging job market, it sounds as if Nick Finan is well on his way to doing that yet again.

Nick Finan's summer project.

Nick Finan’s summer project.

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