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Blessed to give, blessed to receive -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Blessed to give, blessed to receive

Not every Habitat supporter gives in quite the same way, but the far-reaching results of even the most unexpected gifts can be life-changing for all involved.


One house, two generations of Habitat homeowners: Eric Howard and Jed Hefner at the dedication of Howard’s new home. Photo courtesy Habitat Pulaski County.


Arkansas homeowner family gives back, literally

In early 2010, Jed Hefner attended a Habitat house dedication in Little Rock, Arkansas, for new homeowner Eric Howard. Hefner knew Howard’s new place well. For most of his childhood, the house had been Hefner’s home.

Back in 1990, the Hefner family partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Pulaski County to build the first Habitat house in the county. “We moved in Dec. 20, 1990,” remembers Jed, who was 7 at the time. “I remember because I knew it was five days before Christmas.”

He and his sister, Deborah, both lived in the house until they left for college. In 2008, their mother, Anne, passed away. For the first time, the family’s first home was empty. “My sister and I talked, and we each knew neither of us were going to live there again,” Hefner explains. “So we decided to donate it back to Habitat. It’s what our mom would have wanted. She received help from Habitat at a time she really needed it. The biggest tribute we could give her was to pass that on to another family.”

The re-gifted house became the affiliate’s first rehab project, as they updated the home with a new partner family. “Twenty years ago, this house took a mom and two kids out of a bad situation. The kids complete school, go on to higher education and now they are successful enough to give back,” says Paige Perritt, development director for Habitat Pulaski County. “It is so motivating and such a big testament to what a little hand up can mean a generation later.”

Jed, now 27, and Deborah, 30, remember very distinctly the change a new home made on their childhoods. “The two places I remember living at before that, man,” says Jed with a whistle. “One was an apartment complex where we had roaches bigger than the size of my hand.”

Anne could never let the children go outside and play there, either. Her children may not have noticed the drug dealers that patrolled the area, but she did.

“The other place we lived in was this two-bedroom house that had no real heat,” Jed says. “In the winter, we would set up a space heater and all sleep in the same bed to keep warm.”

Jed and Deborah still appreciate what their mother did to transform their living situation so radically.

“She may not have had the most, but she made the most of everything she did have. That’s why she got with Habitat,” Jed says. “And because she did what it took to take care of us, we’re able to do far more with our lives.”

“She pushed us to do more,” Deborah adds. “She always motivated us to do better, no matter where we came from.”

After leaving home, Jed served in the U.S. Marines Corps Reserves while obtaining his degree. Today, he works for a technology consulting firm and is also pursuing an MBA. Deborah graduated from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville with a degree in architectural studies. As an intern, she was among the architects who helped Habitat Washington County develop a neighborhood in Fayetteville that won honors from the American Institute of Architects.

“The interest in community architecture is definitely something that I’ve gotten from my years of experience with Habitat,” Deborah says. And how she’s using it is just another example of how she and her brother are passing on their blessings to others.

“Without that house, I don’t know if I would have graduated from high school, much less college or graduate school,” says Jed. “But it gave us a foundation. It’s pretty simple, nothing fancy. But that house gave us the things everyone should have: your own space, safety, security. Just having those basic comforts was such a difference.”


Lianne Manley and fellow volunteer Jenne Rhynehart take part in the Hand in Hand Build in Nepal. Photo courtesy Habitat AP.


Raising funds in Australia to make change in Nepal

Lianne Manley had never gone on a Habitat build when she signed up to participate in Habitat Australia’s Hand In Hand Build, but the Sydney resident quickly came up with creative ways of raising funds.

In spring 2010, Manley joined a group of 100 Australian women headed to Nepal. Each of the 100 volunteers made a donation of A$5,000 (USD$5,078) to boost Habitat Australia’s campaign to help 250 impoverished women-headed households. The volunteers also paid their travel to Nepal to build alongside Habitat home partners.

Manley’s heart was touched when she first heard about the struggles faced by the women in the eastern town of Itahari. “I know how difficult things can be for a single mum to raise children and maintain a career,” she says. “I found things difficult, but I had a home and an income, so I cannot remotely imagine the difficulties the Nepalese women and their families face.”

Manley runs a franchise of a telecommunications company and capitalized on her corporate contacts — as well as her own creativity — to donate toward the worthy cause. Manley started a fundraising page on Habitat Australia’s website. Together with friend and fellow volunteer Jenne Rhynehart, she organized raffles and sent out email appeals to corporations advertising in local newspapers and radio.

Of the different strategies the fundraising friends tried, a dinner held at a Nepalese restaurant in Sydney, however, was the highlight. A silent auction and donated door prizes entertained 95 guests, the restaurant provided a three-course dinner at cost, and the evening raised a total of A$7,800 (USD$7,922).

Overall, the Hand In Hand Build aims to raise A$500,000 (USD$507,800) to launch a two-year project to help women-headed households in Itahari, Nepal. The Australian funds will enable Habitat Nepal to build decent and safe homes, as well as organize activities aimed at improving health and sanitation and income generation.


Students from Ravenscroft High School help revitalize the Long Acres neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C. Photo by Chris Engel.


Students help revitalize a North Carolina neighborhood

Mike Brajer started swinging a hammer at 16, volunteering at North Carolina’s Habitat Wake County.

“I knew nothing about building, certainly nothing about fundraising, but it was the summer after my sophomore year, and I wanted to do something,” he recalls. “I got close to a couple of the guys at Habitat here, and I felt great about Habitat.”

So great, in fact, that Mike got the idea that his school should raise funds for the affiliate. What if Ravenscroft High School and its feeder elementary and middle schools managed to raise enough money to build a home? And what if they spent hours building it? And what if one house wasn’t enough?

Mike’s vision is about to pay off . Ravenscroft has raised $37,000, enough to help sponsor two homes in Raleigh’s Long Acres, a subdivision that is part of Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

Across the United States, the vision for an NRI neighborhood is one that is revitalized into a vibrant, safe and inviting place to live through the hard work of engaged citizens, partnerships and a renewed community spirit. In its first neighborhood revitalization effort, Habitat Wake County hopes to serve as a catalyst for change in the 50-year-old neighborhood. Plans include the construction of eight new homes and the rehabilitation of five, as well as exterior repair projects on at least 10 existing homes.

The money raised by the Ravenscroft students from car washes, T-shirts and cutting back on things like prom is covering the cost of land for two newly constructed houses. And during the first weekend in March, students — joined by Mike, now a freshman at the University of Michigan — helped build in Long Acres.

The Ravenscroft fundraising continues. What these students are doing is not only making a difference in the lives of future Long Acre residents, says Habitat Wake County executive director Kevin Campbell. It’s also setting an example for Raleigh residents.

“I’m blown away by the dedication and the commitment to raise that kind of money, then come out and do what they can on the builds,” Campbell says. “The servant leadership these kids are showing is impressive.”


Chinese students Bao Runyuan, Sun Jiacheng, Jiao Aijing and Jiang Meng visit with Ben Anderson at Habitat Greater Boston’s office. Photo by Court Clayton.


East meets West and forges a connection

Ben Anderson didn’t expect visitors on Feb. 2, 2011 — certainly not teenage donors from Jiangsu, China. The first two days of February had already produced more than 10 inches of snow and freezing rain, and the Habitat Greater Boston office was officially closed.

Anderson, a leadership development officer for Habitat for Humanity International based in Boston, came in only because he could walk to the office. At one point, he went to the front door to take a look at the scene outside.

“I opened the door and saw these four teenagers,” Anderson recalls. “They had been knocking, but with all the rain and snow, I hadn’t heard them.”

Sixteen-year-olds Jiao Aijing, Jiang Meng and Sun Jiacheng and 17-year-old Bao Runyuan were headed to a Model United Nations project in Chicago, but wanted to visit a U.S. Habitat affiliate along the way. The students shared how they had gotten involved with Habitat.

“My first participation with Habitat was at a charity show at my school,” says Aijing. “The school’s Habitat group successfully raised over 10,000 yuan (about USD$1,520).” The show inspired the four students to join the Habitat campus chapter at their Wuxi No. 1 High School.

“It was pretty amazing,” Anderson says. “It was just a nasty, nasty day. And then all of a sudden here are these kids who have hunted down Habitat’s offices in this weather. And they were so genuinely interested in learning how they could raise more money and help more families.”

Anderson didn’t know it at the time, but the four high school students had another motive. When talking about fundraising, the students asked if the Boston affiliate ever received international donations. They explained that they had all received scholarships for this trip, so they had decided to donate some of their own money — along with funds raised through their school’s chapter — to Habitat Greater Boston.

The students presented Anderson with $530 in American and Chinese currency.

“It was just an incredibly inspiring moment,” says Anderson. “These kids recognized the need in their own country and wanted to make more of a difference there, but they also were willing to contribute to Habitat’s work in a completely different place, too.”

“We all really want to work for Habitat,” Aijing says. “As we are teenagers, our money is limited. That money just represented our eager heart.”


Richard Semmler, second from left, surrounded by Habitat Northern Virginia. Photo courtesy Habitat Northern Virginia.


Virginia man builds his budget around generosity

It started with a $25 gift.

In 1970, a young scholarship student graduated from New York’s Plattsburgh State University. “I had gone to school on a couple of scholarships, which helped ease the pain of paying for a college education because my folks didn’t really have the money,” Richard Semmler says.

Someone had made it possible for him to study, he says, and he wanted to do what he could to pass on the favor. So he made his first donation.

“It started off as $25. That’s all I had at that point because I was in graduate school.” But the gifts soon grew. “The following year,” he says, “it was $50, then maybe $75, then $100. Today, it’s $10,000. It’s been that way for the last 15 years.”

It’s been so much more. In the 41 years since writing that first $25 check, Semmler — now a Northern Virginia Community College professor — has given a total of nearly $1.2 million dollars to an array of causes, including about $260,000 to Habitat. He has done so not by giving when it has been comfortable or convenient but by creating a budget designed to give away about half of what he earns.

He’s just in the habit. “When I reached $1 million, you know, I thought I was going to scale back at that point — retire from the college, do some traveling, do this, that and everything else,” he says, “but it never materialized. Because I said I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

What’s he been doing for more years than this math professor can count is forgoing things like movies and dinners out, vacation travels and extra expenditures. He’s never owned a new car, always shops at thrift stores. He spends a set amount each week on groceries and does everything he can to stretch his dollar. He takes on part-time jobs like book editing and maintenance work so that he has a little bit more spending money — but also gives away half of whatever extra he earns. “It means that you have to plan very, very carefully,” he says. “It means making sacrifices.”

His sacrifices have sponsored local houses for Habitat Northern Virginia, as well as houses in Tanzania. Semmler first became involved as a volunteer, and he still shows up to work every Saturday. “While working with our construction crews, our construction leaders, seeing the families at work, meeting the homeowners that were on site to put in their sweat equity hours, it was at some point there that I realized, ‘Hey, it takes money to build these houses.’”

The 65-year-old also volunteers with and financially supports a local homeless shelter. “It’s very gratifying to work at the mission and to serve the evening meal, be able to provide a nutritious plate of food for someone who’s really hungry. To know that you’ve helped somebody for one day, anyhow. And with Habitat, you’re helping some of these people for a lifetime.”

Semmler doesn’t seem to think that the way he lives, the gift s that he gives, are extraordinary. “If everybody did this, we could make a better world,” he says. “Start out with an amount that is comfortable for you and then improve upon that amount every year after that. That’s what I did. You never know what will happen.”

Shala Carlson, Phillip Jordan, Bill Sanders and Hiew Peng Wong contributed to this story.