The Stories of Habitat for Humanity
Celebrating 35 years of building homes, communities and hope
Thirty-five years ago, Habitat for Humanity planted its flag upon a land of pecan trees, cotton fields and rural poverty in south Georgia. The group’s “modest” goal? Eliminate substandard housing and make real the dream of safe, decent shelter for everyone on earth. This fall, Habitat celebrated its 500,000th house, helping bring more than 2.5 million people home.
The organization’s beginnings are yoked to Koinonia Farm, located just a few miles from Habitat’s international headquarters in Americus and founded in 1942 as a self-sustaining Christian community. In the late ’60s, Koinonia’s co-founder, Clarence Jordan, and Millard Fuller began teaching a concept of partnership housing — enabling low-income families to build their own homes with the help of neighbors, volunteers and a no-profit mortgage.
Fuller took the model to the African countryside in Zaire. The small-scale tests worked, but Millard and Linda Fuller’s official launch of Habitat in 1976 would bring the real test. Would partnership housing be sustainable in thousands of different communities around the world?
Thankfully, we have 500,000 affirmative answers — and counting. Below are just a few families, volunteers and staff who have become part of Habitat’s story over the past 35 years.
Click on a thumbnail below to engage with families, volunteers and staff who have become part of Habitat’s story over the past 35 years.
‘Let’s give it a try’United States, 1976
Reaching into a kitchen cabinet, Sylvia Torres retrieves a large shoebox held together with duct tape. A dusty time capsule, the box contains photos, letters and a hand-written payment schedule — all evidence of the Torres’ faith in an earnest but fledgling nonprofit in the late 1970s. That was when Sylvia and her husband, Ernesto, partnered with Habitat’s first-ever U.S. affiliate in their hometown of San Antonio, Texas.
“We didn’t have anything so I said, ‘Let’s give it a try,’” Sylvia says, recalling the three-room shack her family rented after moving to San Antonio from Coahuila, Mexico, in 1969. “We were willing to take a chance, and we believed it would happen.”
The Torres family began working with Habitat’s San Antonio pioneers in 1976. Over the next three years, family and volunteers would figure out together how to raise funds, secure land and build a house. By 1979, shared frustration, determination, sweat and joy ultimately led to another first: a Habitat house dedication.
In three-plus decades since, Habitat has built or renovated more than 700 houses in San Antonio. In that same about of time, Ernesto says affordable house payments — along with skills honed building his house and working as a professional painter — have enabled him to add a new porch, living area, bedroom and bathroom.
Sitting at his parents’ kitchen table, son Rene says: “My father knew how to do a lot of things. And if he didn’t, he learned how. My father always said, ‘If you don’t want it, you’ll never have it.’ They both feel proud they were able to do this. We have a home because of them.”
From trailblazing to transformationIndia, 1983
In 1983, Gunde Vendulu was squeezing a living out of the money he made pulling a rickshaw by foot in Khamman, India. His wife, Kamalamma, gave birth to their second child that year — both children born into a home far too intimate with the earth, a thatched hut made of mud walls and mud floors, a kilometer away from the nearest water supply.
The year 1983, however, also marked Habitat’s first activity in the Asia-Pacific region, with Khamman its first testing ground. One of Habitat’s first staffers there was Thirupathi Franklin, a skinny, 19-year-old kid with a thin mustache, a thick head of dark hair and dreams of transforming his hometown. “I remember all 16 of the first families [in the first neighborhood] we built with,” says Franklin, who still works with Habitat India today. “Even the head mason who led the building.”
Homeowner Vendulu — now 60, with a striking, white beard and white hair framing a deep-brown face — was among those first 16 families to partner with Habitat in Khamman. A decade after moving into his new home, Vendulu could give up his rickshaw operation. He saved his money and began raising sheep and goats, which he keeps in a stable he built near his oft-expanded Habitat home. Vendulu paid off his mortgage in 2006. “Now that I have become stable economically and socially, I hope to provide good education to my grandchildren and guide them, that they will grow up to be good citizens,” he says.
Franklin says success like Vendulu’s keeps him motivated: “As the safety and security of the family is ensured, family members can concentrate on their livelihood. As homeowners, they have the confidence to face challenges and steadily transform their lives.”
A changed environmentGhana, 1987
A small fish pond. Cocoa and coconut trees. A little farther away, rows of orange trees and oil palms. It’s a serene scene in the Ghanaian countryside, but Albert Arthur sees more than peaceful beauty when he looks outside his front door. He sees peace of mind, resources that allow him to pay the utility bills and to send his children to better schools. “When I look outside, I feel happy,” he says.
Back in 1987, his home was one of 140 houses built in Assin Nyankumase village with Habitat’s new program in Ghana. “There was a communal spirit with which we all made bricks and cleared the land of bushes,” says the father of four. “Amidst it all, we shared jokes.” Arthur became lifelong friends with many of his neighbors.
The environment felt nothing like what he had known prior.
Before Habitat’s entrance, Arthur’s schoolteacher salary wasn’t enough to build a house. Instead, his family rented a single room in a group home. The house had no toilet, and the Arthurs shared two small kitchens with the building’s 26 other residents. Worse than that, Arthur remembers, was the lack of privacy and security. Older, unsupervised children bullied younger kids, stealing was common and child-molestation cases committed by intruders went unsolved.
“My aim was to have a good house for my children,” Arthur says. “Acquiring a house then allowed me to farm in addition to my teaching job.”
Today, Arthur, 54, is the headmaster at a local junior high school. He is proud of what he has provided for his family — and for his neighbors. When he served a term as a town assemblyman in the 1990s, Arthur helped bring electricity options to the entire Habitat neighborhood.
Build before you crawlHonduras, 1989
Jessica Magaly Deras
Julia Maria Martinez says it didn’t hit her until she saw her then-2-year-old son, Jose, crawling around her new Habitat house. “My kids have grown up in this house,” she says, “and when they started to crawl, I became so happy — because they were crawling on cement floor and not in the dirt.”
Habitat’s work in Honduras began in 1989, in the Yure River valley. The Martinez family’s home sits near the entrance to Habitat’s first development. Martinez values the quiet here; she has no trouble recalling the unwanted foot traffic near the unsecure hovel they once called home. A roof made of leaves and walls pieced together with wood planks and mud guaranteed a muddy mess inside when it rained.
“Before, we lived in fear,” she says. “Having this house gave us more will to work and made everyone happier.”
Happiness, of course, isn’t a safeguard against difficulties. Two years ago, Martinez’s longtime husband, Eduviges Diaz Bonilla, died unexpectedly. “His death was the hardest thing in my life,” she says quietly.
She’s coping by figuring out ways she can better support her children. Most days, visitors to Martinez’s home smell the toasting of corn kernels, a process required to create pinol flour. She also grinds horchata extract, which is used in a popular Honduran drink made with rice and spices, served with cold milk and sugar.
Several of Martinez’s children are out of school and bringing in money from jobs, too. All of them — ages 16 to 26 — live with their mother again. Her oldest daughter, Sandra Isabel, has two children of her own, who have the run of Martinez’s house these days. And 6-month-old Genesis is the one on his hands and knees now, tracing well-known routes around his grandmother’s feet.
Fruit from laborThe Philippines, 1993
Courtesy the Seso Family
Christian Jay Seso’s parents, Jojo and Yoly Seso, couldn’t afford to send their three sons to college. That did not preclude success for their children. Oldest son Jordan is now a farmer in the family’s ancestral hometown. Angelo, who works at a restaurant, is married and has a child of his own. Youngest son Christian applied for — and won — a pair of scholarships to the University of the Philippines. He also worked a part-time tutorial job to pay for his transportation, meals and clothing while in school.
The youngest Seso is quick to point out there are two big reasons why he’s as motivated as he is: his mother and father. “I’m on the path I am today because of the solid home and community where my values and beliefs were molded,” he says.
In 1993, Christian’s parents first applied to partner with Habitat Philippines on one of 188 houses to be built in a new development along Laguna de Bay, the country’s largest lake. At the time, their home was a narrow structure among the slums of Mandaluyong. Located in Metro Manila, one part of the area is visited often for its shopping malls; Mandaluyong’s hidden side contains more than 150 acres of substandard housing that locals call “Welfareville.”
Jojo and Yoly invested hundreds of hours of labor on the Habitat worksite and many more in homeowner-education classes. By 1996, their home was ready.
Christian says there is a saying his parents taught him: Pag may tiyaga, may nilaga. Roughly translated: “What you reap is what you sow.” This past April, Christian’s parents watched their son graduate with a civil engineering degree — and top thesis honors in his class.
From two, a world of differenceJapan, 1997
Fourteen years ago, only two students signed up to join Craig Smith’s Global Village volunteer team to build houses in the Philippines: Mariko Asano and Mari Sano. It was difficult for Smith, a Canadian-born teacher at Japan’s Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, not to be disappointed in the small turnout.
Still, he and his two students spent two weeks in the Philippines building alongside Filipino volunteers, a youth group from Korea and students from two other Japanese universities. As it turns out, “Mariko and Mari were more than enough,” Smith says. “They founded our Habitat campus chapter after the trip and, years later, started Habitat’s first office in Japan.”
Since then, the campus chapter has raised thousands of dollars for Habitat projects around the world, advocated for affordable housing causes at home and organized 15 other Global Village teams. Meanwhile, Habitat Japan, founded in 2003, sends nearly 1,000 volunteers overseas each year and raises funds and awareness for Habitat projects worldwide.
“Our campus chapter became the single-most creative force on our campus,” Smith says. “I believe the ongoing, empowering inspiration of the GV experience is the source of energy for all the good our Habitat students continue to do on and off campus year after year.”
In 2011, the university’s campus chapter raised funds for earthquake-recovery projects in Afghanistan, Haiti and their own country. For the first time, students have organized two build trips for the same school year: an international one as planned, as well as a build in northern Japan’s Tohoku region, ravaged by this year’s quake.
Why both places? Because, says this year’s campus chapter president, Natsuki Ichikawa, neighbors in need exist everywhere: “Global Village means that we are all in one village,” she says. “Wherever we live, this world is our village.”
Reconciliation on the worksiteNorthern Ireland, 2000
Courtesy of Habitat Northern Ireland
When Habitat’s work began in Belfast in 1994, there was still no ceasefire and no peace process in place within Northern Ireland. Centuries-old tension between Catholics and Protestants often revealed itself in bloody violence.
Habitat supporters often talk about building community and hope just as much as houses. In Northern Ireland, that broader objective never seemed more important — or more challenging. Habitat’s local staff set about developing a mixed volunteer base and bringing Catholic and Protestant partner families together.
Six years later, Habitat Northern Ireland organized a Global Village trip to Botswana. Two congregations supplied volunteers: Gilnahirk Presbyterian Church and St. Colmcille Catholic Parish. Today, these two churches’ partnership has stretched nearly a dozen years. Their members jointly hold Habitat fundraisers, build in Belfast neighborhoods and have gone on six more Global Village trips. Together.
“We have team members who 10 years ago would not have been open to the idea of a cross-faith, cross-community partnership,” says St. Colmcille’s Desi Gibson.
Gilnahirk’s Tim Morrow says both churches saw the opportunity “to reach out a hand to our neighbor, to put an end to living separate lives and foster an opportunity for two communities to come together. For us, the vehicle to do that came through Habitat.”
Renewed FaithKyrgyzstan and Romania, 2001
Courtesy of Habitat Kyrgyzstan
Despite steady, professional jobs, a combination of uncaring landlords and rough neighborhoods had created a near-nomadic lifestyle for the Usonov family in Kyrgyzstan. Between 1988 and 2000, the family moved six times.
Westward, in Romania, 28-year-old Aranka Corcoi shared a small, damp flat in Beius with a girl she had grown up with in a Communist-era orphanage. Heavy rain would bring water down the inside of her walls. In the winter, she would stuff paper in the cracks of her walls and windows, trying to keep out the cold and snow.
A decade ago, the compassion of strangers changed both families’ living situations — and their outlooks on life.
Habitat Kyrgyzstan partnered with the Usonovs in Bishkek as one of 70 families in its first neighborhood. Bektur and his wife, Ryskiul, built with volunteers who came from Great Britain. “Their presence, helping us — some far, far away from their own homes — made our belief firm in global, simple human kindness again,” Bektur says. “There are people with open hearts.”
The next year, in Beius, Habitat Romania devised a way to renovate and expand the flats where Aranka Corcoi lived. Soon, her living unit was transformed: a new kitchen, bathroom, electric water-boiler and a stove to provide heat. A durable roof installed, leaks fixed, plumbing and heating systems added. Most meaningful to Corcoi are the relationships she made during the renovation: “That was the most important benefit this home brought me. It’s made me hope for a better future and let me regain my trust in people.”
Still growingCanada, 2011
Courtesy Habitat Moose Jaw
In Canada’s Saskatchewan province, there’s a town of about 30,000 called Moose Jaw. One possible origin of the distinctive name comes from the mid-1800s, when a traveler’s cart broke down where the city stands today. Legend says a resident helped the traveler fix his wagon with an old moose jawbone.
True or not, says Brian Martynook of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, the tale is indicative of Moose Jaw’s neighborly reputation. This summer, modern-day community spirit helped Habitat Moose Jaw — Canada’s newest affiliate — finish its first house, with Lee and Taryn Guse.
Staffers from nearby Habitat Regina provided guidance, a local Air Force base supplied volunteers, church members brought lunches, and neighbors offered carpentry expertise. “There was ownership of this project by the whole community,” says Martynook, also the affiliate’s chairman. “We’re struggling with affordable housing here right now. A few of us had heard about the success of Habitat elsewhere, and we wanted to see if it would work here.”
As Lee Guse well remembers, the experiment began last December. “It was minus-20 Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit),” he says with a laugh. “The wind was blowing, my hands were freezing. I was numb for hours afterwards. But people showed up. And in two days’ time, we had framed the house.”
On July 31, the Guses’ celebrated their son Hunter’s second birthday by inviting relatives over for a lunch in their brand-new home. “We couldn’t do that before,” Lee says. “This experience is the greatest thing we’ve done, for ourselves and for our kids. At the end of the day, everybody wants to have a place to call their own.”
And the Guses are taking action to make that happen for others. This winter, they’ve volunteered to help Habitat Moose Jaw with its second project. Lee, who works at a radio station, has volunteered his time to promote the build to local media. Taryn is on the affiliate’s family services committee, guiding a new partner family through the process. “After all,” she says, “nobody knows the answers better than I do.”
Pointing forwardBosnia and Herzegovina and United States, 2011
Thanks to those involved in growing Habitat’s ministry, there are at least 499,090 more stories worth sharing. Each one of those stories invites an opportunity for disparate lives to touch — for people to sweat together, learn about each other and to realize common bonds. Thirty-five years after Habitat’s birth, it’s affirming to reflect on these stories. It’s even more thrilling to anticipate more to come. Because new stories are being written every day.
Just this year, Habitat began working with families in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time. Here, Habitat is partnering with a local microfinance organization to provide housing loans for home construction, repairs and energy-efficient upgrades. For Kenan and Selma Sejfoski, Habitat’s partnership means they can complete the brick abode they started several years ago, but couldn’t afford to finish on their own. Soon, they will move their two sons out of a one-room house and into their newly finished home next door.
Often, Habitat’s partner families are the ones writing new chapters in this ministry. In Pennsylvania, Tom and Jodi Audette were required to put in 200 to 400 hours of sweat equity on the house they built this year with Habitat Chester County. By the time their house was complete, they had worked 1,000 hours. Each.
When they moved in, Tom took a week’s vacation to get the family’s belongings situated. He found enough time to spend four of those days volunteering on a new Habitat worksite. “I told them, ‘You have a partner for life now,’” he says.
The Habitat Chronicles
A few moments in time from Habitat’s first 35 years
- Fund for Humanity partnership housing model created at Koinonia, the seed for Habitat’s birth eight years later
- The Torres family first to partner with a U.S. Habitat affiliate in San Antonio, Texas
- The first Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project renovates a 19-unit apartment building in New York City
- Habitat’s Global Village and Youth Programs created, engaging new volunteers
- Habitat’s first U.S. resale outlet opens in Austin, Texas. Now, hundreds of ReStores recycle building materials and fund more houses
- Habitat’s 100,000th home dedicated in New York City
- Habitat celebrates its 200,000th house, providing shelter for 1 million people since 1976
- National Women Build Week premieres the same year as Habitat’s long-term “Build Louder” advocacy campaign
- Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative introduced in U.S. to encourage holistic community development
- House No. 500,000 built in Kenya; No. 500,001 built by Kenya’s tithe partner, Paterson Habitat, in New Jersey
- The mission continues
Habitat World could never share as much of Habitat’s story without the help of locally based staff and volunteers throughout the world. We thank the following colleagues for coordinating, researching and reporting much of this feature.
Texas, United States: Shelly LaFleur and Stephanie Wiese; India: Thirupathi Franklin and Diana Rawat; Ghana: Dorothy Prah; Honduras: Jessica Magaly Deras and Ernesto Mejia; The Philippines: Claire Marie Algarme and Pina P. Perez; Japan: Hanzel Sarceda and Craig Smith; Northern Ireland: Jenny Williams; Kyrgyzstan and Romania: Daniar Ashymov and Emil Popa; Canada: Brian Martynook; Bosnia and Herzegovina: Melnisa Begovic; Pennsylvania, United States: Bobette Meeter
Special thanks to Stephanie Banas, Katerina Bezgachina, Jeanette Clark, Susan Dunn-Lisuzzo, Bob Longino and Hiew Peng Wong. Edited by Phillip Jordan