MONTEVIDEO -- New graduate Matt Sudduth was still wearing his cap and gown when he waved down the van full of strangers.
They pulled up, snapped his picture with family around him, and moments later Sudduth and five other volunteers from the University of Minnesota were on their way to Montevideo.
They spent the past five days helping repair the exteriors of two homes in the Chippewa County community, and forging new friendships.
"We've had a blast,'' said Marina Mossaad, of Rochester. None of the students in the van -- Sudduth is the only graduate -- had met before they left Minneapolis.
The six are volunteers with Habitat for Humanity's Brush with Kindness program. It's part of a larger Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, according to Joline Hovland, executive director of the West Central Habitat chapter in Willmar.
The program sends helping hands to assist homeowners with maintenance. Homeowners provide whatever "sweat equity'' they can. The volunteers take on the labor that the owners cannot.
The students said they learned of the opportunity to help out thanks to John Worden, a Montevideo native. He is director of facilities, transit and housing for the Minnesota Student Association. His father was unable to maintain his home due to health problems. Family, friends and a church group went to work on his behalf to improve his home in Montevideo.
The experience led Worden to promote the idea of linking volunteers with those needing help maintaining their homes.
Alicia Hill is a U of M student who also works with Habitat for Humanity. She led the group to Montevideo.
She said they pitched a tent in Lagoon Park and spent their days working on two different owner-occupied homes. The work ranged from replacing a rickety, outside stairway with a solid porch and stairs, to re-siding a garage and digging away to fix a leaky foundation.
Sudduth earned a bachelor's degree in political science. His goal is to teach English in China. The other five students will be returning to the 'U' to pursue majors ranging from neuroscience and genetics to fish and wildlife and natural resources. One future architect was among the group.
All said they came to learn and to help, and thought the timing was perfect. It gave them a chance to do volunteer work before starting summer jobs.
"Awesome,'' said Lynn Moen, who has lived for 15 years in one of the homes improved by the students. "It's just exciting. They're so nice.''