By Scot Ninnemann
June 21, 1997 -- As the 1997 Jimmy Carter Work Project draws to a close, 52 Appalachian families are getting ready to move into new Habitat houses. Each of these families has contributed hundreds of hours of "sweat equity." And now that the blitz build is over, the families can purchase the houses through no-interest loans, their house payments being recycled to build still more Habitat houses.
But the homeowners aren't the only ones whose lives have been changed. This week also has been profoundly moving for the 2,400 volunteers building alongside the homeowner families.
"I feel like we have lifelong friends here," said Don Steinert. "I start feeling kind of teary about these people that I've known for days, it's pretty amazing."
Many volunteers I spoke with wondered whether they or the homeowners were really receiving more from the experience. Florence Tandy, president of the Madison County Habitat affiliate board, repeated a worksite saying which summed up that sentiment well: "Habitat blitz builds are just like camp for adults with one great big crafts project."
This crafts project enabled 52 families to secure simple, decent, affordable places to live.
Joan Hembree is one of the new Habitat homeowners. Her family has completed their sweat equity requirement, but she plans to continue working with her local Habitat affiliate.
"I'll be volunteering my time to help the other Habitat families," says Hembree, "and it isn't because I have to. It's because I want to, because I've seen what other people have done for us."
The affiliates' support for the homeowner families doesn't end with the blitz build, either.
Lois and Jim Morgan have been chosen as the partner family for the Coffeys, one of the new homeowner families in Berea, Ky. To describe the partner family's role, Jim Morgan says, "The word that best fits is 'ombudsman,' or 'liaison.'" The partner families are on hand to assist with any questions a first-time homeowner family might have, from insurance to home repair.
The success of the blitz build has also led many participants to begin planning new Habitat projects. After this week's experience working with student volunteers, Don Steinert is considering organizing a student-built home as part of a leadership seminar. "Working with these students is really inspiring," he says. "That's what I'm carrying back from here."
Florence Tandy is eager to begin planning a women's build. "We promised Rosalynn (Carter) that we would build a women-built house soon, and that always has been one of my dreams. People are just so excited about it. I think this has helped to make that excitement and to give us the wherewithal to follow through."
Charlene Stone believes the blitz build's success will serve as a catalyst for local involvement with Habitat. "I think the community is going to come in and say, 'this is about helping other people, this is not only about Jimmy Carter coming to town...' I look forward to seeing that community support fall in. I know it will."
Tandy sees the week's passing not as the end of a project, but as the beginning of a new level of home building for her affiliate. "I think this has built so much momentum that it's bound to continue to snowball after this. Local people that we didn't know were around have come out of the woodwork because of all the excitement. I have not talked to a single local person that's been here this week that hadn't had the best time and can't wait for our next build."
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