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Sharing the burden -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Sharing the burden

Sometimes, Habitat affiliates extend the ‘hand up’ to each other
By Phillip Jordan

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. — Galatians 6:2


Each day, thousands of individual Habitat for Humanity donors, volunteers and advocates enable this ministry to help more families longing for home. There is, however, another layer of support that people might not notice.

Habitat’s own affiliates frequently lift up and sustain each other — especially in periods of need. An offer of help could be an unexpected gift, sent at just the right moment. It could be wisdom dispensed that allows an affiliate to grow. Or it could be the power of simply standing with another affiliate during a time of personal loss.

However it happens, the act of one Habitat group helping another is often what makes it possible to get through tough times — and refocus on what matters most.

“A blessing both ways”

Guatemala and North Carolina groups take turns aiding each other

When Our Towns Habitat began working in Davidson, North Carolina, back in 1988, the affiliate’s founders pledged to tithe 10 percent of all locally raised funds to further Habitat’s work in Guatemala. The commitment of funds and volunteers has helped Habitat Guatemala serve an additional 940 families. It also has established something else: a true friendship and partnership. Two years ago, Our Towns Habitat discovered just how deeply that bond had grown.

In 2009, as the worldwide economic downturn intensified, Our Towns Habitat realized it was facing an economic crisis of its own. Soon, the painful decision had to be made to delay sending its tithe to Guatemala; the money just wasn’t available. Executive director Terry Laney called Habitat Guatemala’s national director, Luis Samayoa, to let him know. “I told him that we would catch up,” Laney says. “He just said, ‘That’s ok. We understand times are tough.’”

By January 2010, Our Towns Habitat was at least able to undertake one of its regular volunteer trips, sending some staff and volunteers to Guatemala for a Global Village build. The trip’s participants fundraised for Habitat Guatemala and then built alongside local volunteers and partner families. There remained a different backdrop to this visit, though. Back home, Our Towns was still working to catch up financially.

The first night in Guatemala, before the volunteer team started work on three houses in Puerto Barrios, Samayoa pulled Laney aside, telling him he had a surprise to share: “Our board unanimously voted to tithe $35,000 to your affiliate. We know it’s been a hard year. You have always been there for us, and now we want to be there for you.”

As word of the gift spread among Our Towns’ staffers and volunteers, the tears began to flow. “I just broke down and cried in front of everyone,” Laney says, “including people we had brought from another affiliate that we wanted to introduce to Guatemala.”

Almost immediately, he called his construction director back in North Carolina: “Put another house on the schedule.”

“But we’ve already said we can’t do more than 15 homes this year,” came the reply.

“We can now,” Laney answered.

Our Towns Habitat’s supporters never forgot that their 16th house in 2010 came courtesy of Habitat Guatemala’s gift. That following summer, as work progressed on the “Guatemala house,” Laney invited Samayoa, other Habitat Guatemala representatives and a homeowner to come work on the home and be involved in its dedication. This time, it was Laney who had a secret up his sleeve.

“At our house blessing, we explained how our friends in Guatemala had made this house happen,” Laney says. “Then we presented them with an oversized check for $125,000 — the amount we owed to get us fully caught up on our tithe.”

“It was a huge surprise,” Samayoa says. “We gave our tithe to them without expecting anything back. When I received the news that day, it was something I could not believe. “What is most special is that partnership we share. Part of that partnership means commitment, loyalty, perseverance and love.”

In the past year, that relationship has continued to grow. Our Towns Habitat now sends its tithe to Guatemala on a monthly basis, not quarterly as before. The affiliate is also recruiting volunteers to go on two Global Village trips to Guatemala each year. On the most recent trip, North Carolinians helped Habitat Guatemala launch its “smokeless stoves” project, an initiative that helps families install stoves that require much less wood and save families from inhaling harmful smoke inside their houses. Our Towns Habitat has committed to raising $60,000 over the next two years to help Habitat Guatemala serve 600 more families with these efficient, healthy stoves.

“Everything we do with Habitat, it’s about relationships. Some people don’t get that,” Laney says. “People ask me, ‘Why do you go down there?’ If we go down to Guatemala with our hands and our hearts and just be servants, the things we bring back are the stories. Then we can affect people here with our personal experiences. It’s a blessing both ways.”

“God was leading us to this point”

Neighboring affiliates blossom in Nashville

As 2007 dawned, Habitat Dickson County could count 12 houses built in its 13 years of existence in Middle Tennessee. Marsha Hudgens had joined the rural affiliate in 2004. In three years’ time, she had already served as accountant, secretary of the board and executive director. “I could name a lot of different positions,” Hudgens says with a laugh. “We all could.”

The year of her arrival, Habitat Dickson County had managed to rehab one house and build another. Since then: nothing. “Board members were burned out, and a lot of them had been there since the beginning,” Hudgens says. “We wanted to get new blood in, but nobody wanted to join without anything happening. It was just a cycle we couldn’t break through.”

Local need remained evident. “Our county has roughly 52,000 people,” says Dickson director Chris Greene. “Approximately 3,000 families could immediately qualify for a Habitat house based on their need and income. More than 13 percent of our population lives in poverty.”

In July 2007, Hudgens and the Dickson staff made a call to Habitat Greater Nashville, a large affiliate located in Tennessee’s state capital, just 40 miles away. To Hudgens, the call was a matter of survival. “Nashville really cared about what we were going through, and they set up a lot of other discussions with us,” Hudgens recalls. “They were so willing to talk and to help as much as they could.

“Eventually, it evolved to the point where they saw the level of need we had, and they suggested merging as an option. We pretty quickly thought, ‘Oh yeah, that could work.’”

In the months that followed, Habitat Greater Nashville worked with Dickson’s staff to set up an arrangement that would enable Dickson’s staff to remain at work in the county — with the support of services already established in Nashville. By year’s end, Dickson had become a division of Habitat Greater Nashville. Today, the Dickson division locally directs fundraising, volunteer engagement, family selection and education. Nashville-based staff are able to provide other services that don’t need to be duplicated: accounting, construction staff, leadership and advocacy.

The results? By the end of this coming year, Habitat will likely have already built more houses in Dickson than it did in the 13 years pre-merger. The division has a new office and the first ReStore in the county.

“None of this would have been possible if Nashville had not been willing to help us through this process,” Greene says, “and stuck with Dickson to not just help it survive — but to ensure that it would grow.”

Now, Dickson’s success has emboldened Habitat Greater Nashville to start a new division in nearby Cheatham County, where there has never been an active Habitat group. The first Cheatham County house is being built this summer.

“The Dickson model helps a ton,” says Ralph Knauss, Habitat Greater Nashville’s chief operating officer. “Cheatham might be from scratch, but we can take what we learned from helping Dickson when they were in need.

“In both cases, we acted because our success as an affiliate, and Habitat’s success as a whole, really boils down to how many families we’ve served. That’s the whole mission. That’s what we ask ourselves to decide if what we’re doing is worth it.”

A 25-year native of the area, Hudgens says Habitat now has a presence in her community like never before. “There’s really no comparison. A lot of people didn’t even know we were here before, or what we were,” she says. “Now, it seems everybody in Dickson knows about Habitat or has even been involved in some way. It was like God was leading us to this point: to ask for help when we needed it.”

“Foundations that aren’t going to tumble”

Friends help as a Michigan affiliate recovers from loss

Occasionally, the needs of a Habitat affiliate extend far beyond the construction site. Sometimes, the need stretches all the way to the heart.

In early March, Midland County Habitat’s much-loved executive director, Terri Ehrlich, died unexpectedly due to complications from a recent injury. All at once, the Michigan affiliate’s staff, volunteers and partner families found themselves without their leader — and without their close friend.

“She was just a really bright light,” says Terri’s husband, Brian, who worked alongside his wife as Midland County Habitat’s ReStore manager. “First and foremost, she was a happy, positive person. She’d talk to anybody. And she could convince most anybody around here that things could get done — and they did.”

“Whether Terri was working with a partner family or a high-up executive at a corporation, you would never know the difference from watching or listening to her,” says the affiliate’s board president, Linda Holder-Beneker. “She treated every person like they were the most important person on earth. She treated our families like they were the most valuable people, with such respect and love.”

Ehrlich’s genuine compassion also helped win over partners and sponsors within the community to support Habitat’s work. “Those relationships she built, they’re still with us,” Holder-Beneker says. “She built foundations that aren’t going to tumble.”

Those foundations include strong working relationships with other area affiliates. In the months before Midland County Habitat could find a new executive director, calls of support came from neighboring affiliates in Saginaw and Bay County. As executive director, Ehrlich had worked closely with Saginaw Habitat’s Cameron Brady, who made sure that Midland County’s staff knew they could count on his affiliate’s help to continue.

Brady met with Midland County Habitat in person at least four times in the two months after the affiliate lost Ehrlich. He offered to send some of his staff to work out of their office if needed. He’s also taken more phone calls than Midland County’s staff can count. “He and his colleagues have sent us forms, websites, directions on where to go for resources we need,” Holder-Beneker says. “And we’ve called and asked just a hundred silly little questions that Terri would know, but we didn’t. We would have sunk without Saginaw’s help.”

She also points to the aid of Habitat Michigan’s state support organization — an entity that strives to help Michigan’s 77 affiliates better serve their local communities. Tom Williams is Habitat Michigan’s director of capacity building. On the day of Ehrlich’s death, he was driving to visit another affiliate in the state. He immediately changed course and made it to Midland the next day, simply to offer whatever comfort he could.

“Everybody was in shock, people were still trying to get their heads around it,” Williams recalls. “Just being there was the best you can do. Habitat is a personal mission, and when you lose somebody, everyone in that mission really feels it.”

Since that day, Williams has been able to assist in more concrete ways, including helping the affiliate finish vital grant applications that were in process when Ehrlich passed away. “Tom would be at our side any minute we need it,” Holder-Beneker says. “That’s huge, and he means it.”

There have been countless examples of similar, selfless support. A former treasurer came back to help in the office. Construction staff have helped in ways far beyond their job titles. Terri Ehrlich’s sister offered help when needed. One week, she made posters that were needed for an event at the affiliate’s ReStore.

Beyond those examples, other projects have begun to flower from seeds that Terri Ehrlich herself helped to plant. During her time at Midland County, she championed collaboration between affiliates in Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay region. Today, the Saginaw and Bay County affiliates are working with Midland County on several regional efforts, including an expanded, donor-supported Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

“Terri left us this opportunity to join forces and share,” says Saginaw Habitat’s Brady. “She brought a willingness to work together that just catapulted our regional efforts to a whole new level. We said we were going to help and we’re going to do that. Helping now is how we can follow through on what Terri helped build.”