Without Small, There Is No Big

Cameron Beach is a Robertson Scholar who spent two months of her summer volunteering with NOAHH as part of her scholarship program. She wrote this reflection on her time with our affiliate.

Just a few days after I proudly graduated fifth grade, my mother and I found ourselves stuck in summer traffic en route to soccer practice. “Look,” she tapped her finger on the window glass, “That’s gonna be your school soon.”

I craned my neck across the seat and saw, for the first time, our town’s brand new middle school. I thought it looked like a colossal spaceship, with gleaming metal poles, buffed stone walls, and three stories of shiny green windows. In awe, a question bubbled past my lips—“How… How do they even build something like that?”

I immediately recognized how silly it sounded, and my mom scoffed at me before replying. But as she began to answer, her voice faltered. “It’s made… It just… Well, they hire people who know how to build it,” she finally settled.

I wasn’t satisfied. As we rolled past my future school, I imagined giant steel beams hauled to and fro by cranes, hundreds of hammers swinging in unison, a profuse team of construction workers admiring their finished product. In order to create something so giant, I figured, every act must be equally gargantuan. And that, I settled on, is how buildings get made— by a lot of really big actions.

On my second day of Habitat work this summer, Megan—my site supervisor—asked me to cut some wooden beams for our site’s flooring. Grabbing a measuring tape from her van, she began calling out the sizes of the wood from inside the house. “Twenty-six and a half!” The measuring tape retracted as she hooked it on to the next piece. “Seventy-three and a quarter! Fifty-two and seven-eighths!” Almost involuntarily, I snorted. A quarter? Seven-eighths? I tilted my head up at the towering framework of our house. Why would we have to measure things down to a tiny fraction when we’re making something so… Big? I decided to round down—Megan’s “seventy-three-and a quarter” became a simple seventy-three. And when, five minutes later, she handed my piece of wood back to me and told me it didn’t fit, I gawked.

“You cut this to seventy-three, didn’t you?” She smiled. “I know it doesn’t seem like it would matter, but it does. Even a quarter matters.”

That was when I began to realize that lanky cranes and steel beams don’t build houses—houses are built by quarters. Every wall, floorboard and window is the result of someone bending down with a measuring tape and calling out a number—“Five and three-eighths! Twenty-four and a half!” On their own, each one of these numbers is just the size of a wooden beam. But stack the beams on top of one other, and suddenly, they’re a bedroom wall.

It took me until the end of my two months with Habitat to realize that my site on Urquhart Street—a house that will soon become a home for two families—was built by quarters. But all the chopping, hammering and painting eventually brought understanding: without an extra three-eighths of wood, the window won’t fit. Without a nail every six inches, the floorboards will tilt. Without small, there is no big.

Without small, there is no big—after two months of hammer-swinging and paintbrush-wielding, these are the six words cemented in my mind. They remind me of way Habitat has grown to be so big in New Orleans—through the smallest of acts, connecting with individual homeowners and establishing roots in a community street by street. They remind me of the high school volunteer group who taught Jaden, a boy who lives on Urquhart Street, how to count by fives and tens using his fingers.

I’m a bit taller now, but I haven’t changed too much since that day I saw my new middle school—I still have a tendency to think big. I don’t want to teach one child; I want to found a school. I don’t want to run a 5K; I want to train for a marathon. I didn’t want to build just one house with Habitat; I wanted to bring affordable housing to all of New Orleans.

It turns out that you can’t quite do that in two months. But what you can do is measure, hammer and paint. What you can do is build a house on Urquhart Street. This summer with Habitat was a lesson in small—in quarters—and how to make big change with tiny, decent actions. In a few months, two families are going to move into a home that I helped create. And that feels pretty… Big.