How one student builds on kindness and encouragement
By Maria Johnson
When shoppers inspect the wooden outdoor furniture at a special sale this month at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore on Gate City Boulevard, they’ll see the obvious traits: sturdy, attractive, handmade, affordable.
They won’t see the most impressive part: the builder, 19-year-old Bianca Briscoe of Greensboro. Her kissed-by-fate story stretches from childhood summers spent with her grandparents to a mild spring morning this past May.
That’s when Bianca’s mother, Gretta Frierson, the director of clinical support services at Cone Hospital, was driving down Bessemer Avenue and saw two cars wreck in front of her.
Gretta, a registered nurse who once worked on Cone’s orthopedic floor, jumped out to see if anyone was hurt. The people in one car were fine. In the other car, the man in the passenger seat was dazed by the airbags but OK. His wife, the driver, was frozen behind the wheel.
The seat belt had dug into her side, and one hand was hurt, but she seemed to have no major injuries.
Gretta noticed the woman was wearing a Habitat for Humanity T-shirt with the name tag: Ruthie Richardson-Robinson.
“Ruthie, look at me,” Gretta said. “You’re OK. I’m right here. I’m with you.”
“What’s your name?” Ruthie asked.
“You’re my angel,” said Ruthie.
Gretta stayed until the ambulance arrived. Then she went to pick up some supplies for work and drove to the hospital. Entering through the emergency department, which she almost never does, she noticed Richardson-Robinson and her husband in the waiting room.
Another man had joined them.
Gretta went over to check on Ruthie.
During the conversation, she referred to Ruthie’s T-shirt, saying that she and her daughter planned to volunteer with Habitat this summer. Her daughter, Bianca, an architecture major at Howard University, was interested in affordable housing.
Ruthie gestured to the man who sat beside her and her husband: “I guess you don’t know who he is.”
He was David Kolosieke, the new president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity in Greensboro. Ruthie, it turned out, was the organization’s director of homeowner services and neighborhood outreach.
Kolosieke made an offer on the spot: He wanted to give Gretta’s daughter a summer internship with Habitat.
A couple of weeks later, Bianca was back home, explaining to Kolosieke why she was the right woman for the job.
She’d finished third in her class at the Early College at Dudley High School, where she’d studied on the engineering track. Howard University, in Washington, D.C., lured her with a hefty scholarship to enroll in a five-year program that would graduate her with a master’s degree in architecture. The Howard marching band offered financial help, too, if she would play the French horn for them.
It was a tough sell for Gretta, who had played flute for the marching Aggies of N.C. A&T State University. She had assumed that Bianca would suit up for the Blue and Gold Marching Machine, but Bianca had other ideas.
“Help me understand,” she said to her mom one day. “Why it was OK for you leave home for college, but it’s not OK for me?”
She had a point. Coming to A&T from Richland County, South Carolina, had forced Gretta to grow up. She had put down roots in Greensboro, but her parents, Gretchel and Lucious, visited Greensboro often, and Bianca spent summers with them in South Carolina.
Bianca was her grandfather’s shadow. When Lucious cut the grass, Bianca cut the grass. When he repaired things around the house, Bianca repaired things around the house. When she was 7, and he put her new ready-to-assemble twin bed together, she was standing at the ready with a screwdriver.
“He didn’t have any grandsons, so he had to teach me. He kept encouraging me,” said Bianca, who also excelled at puzzle-making as a child and, later, at the construction-oriented video game Minecraft.
She wrote about her grandfather in her application to Howard.
Unwittingly, he had prepared her for the Habitat internship, too.
Kolosieke needed someone to build outdoor furniture with wood from donated shipping pallets. He took Bianca to the ReStore workshop and asked her to make potting benches, garden benches, end tables and shelves.
There were no plans or drawings. She would have to wing it.
“OK, I can do this,’” said Bianca.
Kolosieke, the father of daughters, was elated.
“She had a fearless willingness to try it,” he says. “There was a brightness in her eyes.”
Over the summer, Bianca and her volunteer helpers made nearly 20 pieces of outdoor furniture — some painted and stained, all sealed with polyurethane.
About once a week, Bianca worked on a Habitat construction site.
When she’s a practicing architect, she wants to focus on low-cost construction and renovation that will slow gentrification, the upscaling of housing in older neighborhoods that drives prices beyond the reach of longtime residents.
“They were there first,” Bianca says. “They should be able to live there.”
She reflects on the ripple of kindness that opened a door for her this summer.
“It’s kinda mind-blowing,” she says. “One person did something good, then someone else did something good, and it worked out.”
She believes her grandfather, who died in March, a couple of months before the wreck, would not be surprised at how she spent her summer.
“He’s the one who talked me through building furniture. I feel like he’d be really proud,” she says. “He’s probably up there like, ‘Ha! Look at you!’” OH
Habitat for Humanity Greensboro ReStore,3826 West Gate City Boulevard. For info on its sale in early September, please call (336) 851-2939.
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.