Stepping into a wood-paneled room off the wide hallways of the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C., 18-year-old Lauren Presley paused to send her parents a brief text message: “I’m in Steve Womack’s office!”
Three days prior, Presley says she couldn’t have imagined asking a congressman to support legislation to help Habitat for Humanity serve more families. But that was before she joined 290 Habitat supporters and staffers at Habitat on the Hill, the annual conference that brings Habitat leaders together to learn about advocacy priorities and to share them with members of Congress.
“The thing that really made me want to go to Habitat on the Hill was that it’s all about advocacy,” Presley says. “That’s something that we’re trying to do through our campus chapter, but we didn’t really know how to go about doing it.”
Presley and a friend started Bentonville High School’s campus chapter to support Benton County Habitat. Presley has helped build three houses and raised money through car washes, pancake dinners and holiday events.
Through conversations with other Habitat affiliate leaders, she says she realized that advocacy is more than education. “It’s about taking action and affecting change,” Presley says. “Fortunately, there were a lot of smart people in the room who shared what worked, and hasn’t worked, for them.”
She learned about Habitat’s housing initiatives for veterans and about federal grant programs that increase Habitat’s capacity to serve more families. She discovered how Habitat uses housing microfinance internationally to give people the chance to build better housing for themselves. And she heard how vital AmeriCorps national service members are to U.S. Habitat affiliates.
When Presley entered Rep. Womack’s office, she says all that preparation kicked in. “I told him about our affiliate’s work and my campus chapter. I shared stories about families we’ve helped. And I told him that we are part of a much larger international organization and shared how we hoped Congress could support our efforts."
Later in the day, Presley joined Habitat staff visiting the offices of Arkansas Sens. Mark Pryor and John Boozman.
Back home, Presley has applied her knowledge. Her campus chapter already had a 5K fundraiser planned; Presley suggested new side events targeting action on specific local housing needs. She also has talked with Benton County Habitat about the issues she discussed with Arkansas’ legislators.
“It’s meetings like Lauren’s that epitomize what Habitat on the Hill is all about,” says John Snook, Habitat for Humanity International’s director of state and local relations. “Translating policies into personal experiences and passion for Habitat’s conviction that every man, woman and child should have a decent place to live in dignity and safety.”