Turning Down and Out into Up and Coming
As we toured through the predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Florida, the city seemed to be in pain. Walls whimpered for paint, scaffolding cried for support, and bricks begged for mortar. Entire houses were gutted. Dilapidated vehicles and trash cluttered the streets.
Then we turned the corner and discovered a neighborhood on the verge of healing. We saw half a dozen cheerful homes with landscaped lawns had recently been built there. Children were out riding their scooters; flowers were growing in the gardens. Residents took pride in their community.
One of the houses was so new, it still smelled of fresh paint and moist sod. Its residents weren't due to move in until the following weekend, but we spotted a pair of sneakers on the front porch and decided to investigate. We knocked on the door and were greeted by the ecstatic new homeowner - a single mother of three-named Pam Bolton.
"I am so happy, I don't know what to do," she exclaimed as she ushered us into her modest, three-bedroom, two-bathroom, home. "We've been living in an apartment that's so small, my kids sleep in my room and I sleep in the living room and we all share the same bathroom. My kids can't even go outside and play there, it's so unsafe. Now I've got a brand new home for me and my kids with a big old backyard! This is a dream for us!"
Just six months ago, Pam was one of an estimated 50,000 residents in Jacksonville who lived in "substandard housing." In addition to being overcrowded, her apartment had deficiencies in heating, water and electricity. It seemed an inescapable situation. Even though she had a full-time job, she didn't earn enough money to put a down-payment on a house - and she thought she never would.
Then she heard about Habitat for Humanity. Since its inception in 1976, this non-profit organization has placed half a million people in better housing across the globe by building over 100,000 homes. Many of its builders had never picked up a hammer before they started working for them - and few of them have ever received a paycheck.
Sound amazing? It only gets better.
Habitat is the brainchild of an American named Millard Fuller, who was a self-made millionaire before the age of 30. He and his wife grew disillusioned with their materialistic existence and decided to change their ways. They sold their belongings, gave their money to the poor, and moved into a Christian commune near Americus, Georgia. There, they decided one of the greatest problems in today's neighborhoods is the cost of housing. Some lower-income families have to earmark as much as 75 percent of their earnings for rent on apartments they will never own. In addition to being only a paycheck away from homelessness, this means families have to scrimp and pinch on necessities like food, clothing, and medicine. It also means they will never be able to save enough to buy a house.
In the early 1970s, the Fullers came up with a model that would give these families more affordable housing options. Habitat for Humanity has since spread to more than 2,700 locations in 76 nations and has won the support of celebrities, entertainers and even former presidents like Jimmy Carter.
Here's how it works at "Habijax," the chapter in Jacksonville. Once a family has been identified as living in "substandard" housing, they can enter a partnership with Habijax to build their own home. This means they must contribute 300 hours of "sweat equity"-100 hours of volunteer labor on their own house and 200 hours on someone else's. Once those hours have been completed, a Habijax crew (that is largely volunteer-based) will help build them a new house with a security system, central air and heating, carpeting, washer, dryer, stove, refrigerator, and ceiling fans. Families can then buy their homes on a no-profit, no-interest basis that comes out to monthly payments of approximately $275.
Does our health insurance cover accidental body piercings?
I should start off by saying that power tools make me nervous...
"Once I move into my new house, I'm going to be saving $300 a month in rent - plus someday, it will be mine," said Ronda Stinson, a single mom. "You just don't understand what that means to me. I'm just overwhelmed by it."
Hearing stories like these impressed Jennifer and I so much that we decided to spend a day volunteering with Habijax. We showed up to their worksite at 8 on a muggy Saturday morning and were amazed to see that 116 people had already gathered to help paint, landscape or build the day away. Some volunteers had never used a saw in their life, while others were veritable veterans.
"I could be out playing golf or watching TV - or I could be out here building houses, giving back to the community. I'd much rather be doing this," said Carl Hashey, a 66-year-old volunteer who donates 40 hours of his time to Habijax each week. "Every time I watch a family move into their new home, I get paid. It's the best paycheck you could ever ask for. I can honestly look myself in the mirror each day and say I made a difference in the community."
One doesn't have to look any further than a neighborhood called "Fairway Oaks" for proof of that. This community was once a model for public housing, but when crack-cocaine trickled in, it became one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Jacksonville. Then Habijax got a hold of it last September. Their goal was to do what no other Habitat had done before: Build 100 homes in 17 days. With a volunteer force of more than 10,000 (including Jimmy Carter), they did just that - plus a community center and a children's play area.
Isn't it amazing what a hammer, a few nails, and a handful of volunteers can do? And guess what -- you can help out too. To find the Habitat for Humanity affiliate nearest you, simply call 1-800-HABITAT or check out their Website (http://www.habitat.org). You can organize a group of volunteers through your school, church or YWCA and start building away. If you are under 16 (the legal age for construction work), you can help out by fundraising, landscaping or baby-sitting for other volunteers.
You can also follow the example of a boy in Jacksonville who asked his friends to bring donations for Habijax to his birthday party instead of presents. He raised so much money, he was able to buy enough shingles to roof an entire home!
Think about it. What greater gift could you ask for?
Links to Other Dispatches
Rebecca - Burn that book! It's on the best-seller list
Irene - Doomed to poverty: Mexican Americans and the Depression
Stephen - For Rent: 1 cardboard box, doubles as an apartment during hard times
Team - So you served your country? So what?
Daphne - The nation goes belly up on Black Tuesday