In 2008, Rachel Grier-Reynolds gave her family what easily could have turned out to be their last Christmas present from the family matriarch.
"They got a box with a tool belt, a hammer and some other tools," the Lewes resident and Milford native said. "I wanted them to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build day with me on Martin Luther King Day, but what I really was giving them was the opportunity to feel the power that you get from service."
Just days later, Grier-Reynolds was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
Despite the devastating news, the family rallied together and spent that MLK Day working on a Sussex County Habitat for Humanity home outside of Seaford.
The home building has since become a tradition for the Grier family, most of whom hail from Milford. Two years ago, they were joined by their former neighbors, the Burris family, also of Milford.
"Rachel asked us to come out and help and if she asks you to do something, you do it," explained Howard Burris. "She's a great lady and we were more than happy to help."
On Monday, about 20 members of the two families continued their Martin Luther King Day of Service tradition by helping to finish the construction of three homes in the Georgetown Point neighborhood off Dupont Boulevard in Georgetown.
Accompanied by a handful of Americorps members, the families painted the inside of one home, added vinyl siding to another and helped to frame a third.
"We had a great time last year and wanted to come out and celebrate MLK Day with the Griers again this year," said Burris family member and Georgetown resident Allison Castellanos. "Habitat makes it really easy for people to volunteer and it's very rewarding to be able to drive by the homes later and say, 'I had a small part in building that.'"
Meghan Hayes, an Americorps member and volunteer coordinator for Sussex County Habitat for Humanity, said working with the Grier and Burris families was a blessing.
"These families work so well together that, really, they sort of just organize themselves," she said. "It's great to have a large group like this because they get so much done, which is a big help since the two families that will be moving into these houses are getting close to the end of their sweat equity."
To qualify for a Habitat for Humanity house, future occupants must participate in agency-run courses on maintaining a household budget and eliminating debt. Each adult in the family also must contribute 250 hours of work on the home.
Hayes said a Georgetown woman with two children will soon move into one of the houses the Griers and Burrises worked on Monday, while a family of seven from Georgetown will move into the other, which has been funded entirely by proceeds from Habitat's ReStore resale center for building supplies and household goods, such as appliances and furniture, in Georgetown.
Page 2 of 2 - A family of three from Georgetown will move into the third house, named the Walt Jones Memorial Project after the late golf course developer and philanthropist from Lewes.
Grier-Reynolds said the families' annual MLK Day tradition has proven to be a source of inspiration during her ongoing battle with cancer, which has included surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy.
"Knowing that we're going to be out here helping the community helps me stay positive," she said. "That's the most important thing you can do and it keeps my mind from going down those rabbit holes. And to do this on a day that celebrates Martin Luther King, whose life was devoted to love and helping others, makes it even better."
Veteran build project seeks volunteers, applicants
Sussex County Habitat for Humanity is seeking volunteers to help build a home in the Georgetown Point neighborhood for a U.S. military veteran in need.
A meeting to discuss the project will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the University of Delaware's Carvel Research and Education Center at 16483 County Seat Highway near Georgetown.
"We are excited to work with Sussex County Habitat for Humanity and serve such a special cause," said project leader and coordinator Mike Nally of Lead Your Way Solutions.
A volunteer event coordinator and volunteer construction manager are still needed to help head up the project.
Potential candidates for those positions, as well as donors, volunteers and veterans in need of a home are invited to attend the meeting.
Anyone interested in the project, is asked to email Nally at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone interested in organizing a build day with Sussex County Habitat for Humanity or volunteering with the organization is asked to call Tom Protack at 302-855-1153, ext. 209.