SEBRING - After an 18-hour straight road trip from Cleveland, Ohio, to Sebring, Daniel Ryave and Rebecca Arko pulled into Highlands County at 4 a.m. Saturday.
They may have been a little tired after the long ride but were more than elated to have dodged Ohio's frigid temperatures.
"The wind chill is minus 25," said Arko, a little ruddy in the face but dressed in a light jacket.
"We are just glad to be here," Ryave grinned.
The Case Western Reserve University students, along with a group of 10 others from the Cleveland school, are here this week to enjoy some balmy January days and make themselves useful.
They belong to the college chapter of Habitat for Humanity and are helping not just the local chapter with a couple of homes but also Highlands Hammock State Park, with a day-long project.
Wednesday, they helped park staff build and set up wooden outdoor benches in the amphitheater area in the camp site.
While Amanda Crow was whitewashing the wall that serves as a projector screen, Ryave, Arko, Maddie Starr and others were digging up holes to install posts of 4x4 for bench legs.
The state park wants to erect 14 benches in the camping area for its Saturday evening "campfire circles" campers share with park rangers.
Andrew Dupuis, Highlands Hammock's OPS for exotic removal, said the old benches were rotting, and volunteers tore them down recently for the rehab work.
The state park was providing the materials, and the plan was to get all the benches set up by Saturday.
Those helping the students were Habitat Care-A-Vaners and retirees, Rosemary and Bill McLaughlin from Connecticut, who volunteer with Habitat affiliates across the country .
"The idea is to make affordable homes available," said Rosemary McLaughlin of Habitat, a national group that provides affordable homes to people who put in a certain number of "sweat equity" hours in other Habitat projects.
While some of the students had been on their first Habitat "Collegiate Challenge," which will turn 25 years this March, trip coordinator and Case Western student Linda Back was here for her third trip.
She helped Habitat one year in the Tampa area and last year in Charleston, S.C.
Student groups get a chance to pick places they want to visit. Back said their preference is for warm places within a 20-hour drive.
So far, the trip has been good, she said. The group got a chance to sample local restaurants, visit Downtown Disney and plan to hit the beach when the weather warms up a little bit more.
The much-warmer weather here and the camaraderie are not the only things the group raved about. Everyone has been hospitable, they said.
The Southern warmth has come with a lot of Southern hospitality, Arko added with a smile.