Karen Lowe might be the last person on earth you would expect to receive homebuilding help from college basketball players. A victim of dwarfism, the 31-year-old human resources coordinator for Goodwill Industries in Knoxville stands 3 feet, 8 inches tall.
"I need a home where everything is shorter," she said. "Especially kitchen counters and things like that."
So who showed up Saturday morning to help Lowe begin building her Habitat for Humanity dream house?
The University of Tennessee men's and women's basketball teams, of course. Everyone from 5-foot-6 Lady Vols point guard Ariel Massengale to 6-9 men's post player Kenny Hall.
"I'm so happy they're here to help," said Lowe, who attended UT-Chattanooga, majoring in Spanish and anthropology. "You can't live in Knoxville and not root for Tennessee. But now that I've gotten to meet the players personally, I'll be pulling harder than ever for them to do well."
That was probably at least a small reason the school's Vol for Life director, Andre Lott, approached the Knoxville Habitat branch last year about UT athletes helping build a house or two.
"The football and basketball teams built houses right next to each other last year," said Habitat's Dan Hurst. "This year they're about a mile apart. The entire football team came to the dedication of their house last year. To see all those players crammed into one living room made that Habitat house seem kind of small."
UT senior guard Skylar McBee said having the opportunity to participate in these Habitat projects is anything but small to the athletes.
"Building someone a home where they'll live and raise a family is so special," McBee said by cell phone. "We're putting walls up today. Lots of hammers and nails. It's a humbling experience."
It's worth nothing that the athletic department in Knoxville isn't the only one in the UT system reaching out to others.
UTC coaches John Shulman, Wes Moore, Russ Huesman and Frank Reed joined members of the UTC Spirit Squad on Friday in collecting change and donations for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Chattanooga.
Such efforts by UTC and others for the RMHC's "Join Us for One Day of Giving" campaign were expected to raise more than $10,000 locally, much as last year's day of giving did.
As for the Habitat-helping Vols, most rose from their beds by 6:45 a.m. Saturday to reach their construction sites before 7:30.
"That's probably tougher on the guys than the girls," Massengale, a native of Illinois, said with a laugh. "I think they like to sleep late on Saturday."
Both the Vols and Lady Vols made a difference.
"This is the first time I've ever hammered a nail into anything," Massengale said. "I didn't want to hit my finger with the hammer, and so far I haven't. This whole thing is a great bonding experience, and it's really fun to get to know the person you're helping to build this house for."
Added McBee: "Derek Reese just got here. He's a true freshman. But he was one of the first guys to get up today. And he hasn't said a negative word. I think it just means a lot to everybody that we're helping create a better life for somebody."
It's easy to grow cynical. To believe our best days are behind us, our best citizens well into their twilight years. But then you hear about the Big Orange's role in Habitat for Humanity or see the dozens upon dozens of UTC Mocs who assist each year with Special Olympics and other charities and you know there's much hope for the future.
Especially as Massengale says of her reason for helping Habitat: "Everyone needs a home."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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