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Many hands make light work -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Many hands make light work

Grassroots volunteer groups find that a Habitat build site can be the ideal place to strengthen familiar connections.
By Rebekah Daniel


Raritan Valley Habitat volunteer Lisa Craig (left) celebrated her upcoming wedding with a build rather than a bachelorette party.


The Haszcyzn and Pearcey families took a volunteer vacation and built with Habitat Armenia.


Further reading
‘You Smile with Us’

Sharing the Love

A Lasting Memorial


“They came home,” Cheris Kramarae says, “to help build a home.”

When the Brookings High School graduating class of 1958 began planning a 50th reunion, Habitat for Humanity volunteer Jessie Parker Strauss floated the idea of making Habitat component of the festivities. Known for her enthusiasm for leading Habitat projects and encouraged by a positive response, Strauss coordinated with Brookings Area Habitat and issued an invitation to four mid-1950s classes to come and build. Classmates, spouses and friends not only volunteered time on the South Dakota build site but also helped out in the Habitat offices and ReStore.

“No one was trying to impress anyone else with their accomplishments of the last 50 years,” says Brookings alum Kramarae. “We were just there working together—all common folk of equal status. Because of our work together on the build, we weren’t just visitors to our hometown. We were participants, giving back to our community.”

Habitat has long been lauded as an organization that encourages its volunteers to interact meaningfully with its partner homeowner families. But the same can be said of the volunteers who come together on the build site. Sometimes, their reasons for volunteering might vary. But sometimes, as with the group that Strauss worked to put together, friends work side by side. The bonds they share can be broad, from high school reunions to bridal gatherings and family groups, but the goal is always the same: the creation of decent, affordable housing.

Will You Build With Me?

Matt Witt was no stranger to Habitat when he became engaged and began planning a summer wedding. As a college student, the Army National Guard pilot had been involved with Habitat in Biloxi, Miss., and knew the organization’s capacity to bring together people from diverse backgrounds. With friends from around the world traveling to Michigan for his wedding, Witt chose Habitat as his meeting ground of choice.

“I had one person from California, one from Chicago, two from Texas, one from Germany,” Witt says. “The day before, I took some of them flying. We toured Detroit and saw the world’s largest football stadium. They really liked all that, but what they loved the most was the Habitat stuff.

“Each project was split up so you were with people you didn’t know,” he explains. “The people that worked together ended up hanging out with each other the whole rest of the time they were in Michigan.”

Over in New Jersey, Lisa Craig had a similar idea. A volunteer on Raritan Valley Habitat’s family selection committee, Craig had participated in multiple Women Builds.

“I kept telling my sister how fun they were and how great it would be if someday I could get all my friends together and do something like that,” Craig says. And so she did, for her bachelorette party. “Within the first five minutes of being on the work site, everyone was like, ‘When are we doing this again?’”

To raise money for the build, the bridal party took pledges from friends and family and wound up with more than $4,500. New Jersey Bride magazine picked up the story and ran an article, both raising awareness of Habitat’s house-building activities and spreading the creative idea.

“I saw the pictures of the Raritan Valley build,” says Blair Bravo, executive director of Morris Habitat in Mine Hill, N.J. “I stole the idea shamelessly.”

Bravo, at the time engaged herself, quickly pulled together a “couples building” event with a focus on team building and communication. “We had all these volunteers, men and women, who were getting married, so we organized a bridal build,” she says. “We invited volunteers to come with their partner and build, and in lieu of wedding favors, donate to Morris Habitat.

“We had a lot of fun,” she continues. “You had to work side by side and do that give-and-take thing. It’s a great way to come with your partner and learn stuff about them before you get married. It’s about trust and experience.”

Expanding Circles

Dave and Judy Osgood had been local Habitat volunteers in central Oregon for nearly two decades when the Asian tsunami of 2004 focused their attention on the plight of families in need of housing overseas. They made an online donation to fund several Habitat houses to help with the tsunami recovery. One contact led to another, and by December 2005, they had accepted a challenge to fund 10 Habitat houses in both Guatemala and Costa Rica—and they had issued a challenge of their own. For each country to receive the Osgoods’ funds for the 10 houses, the national program had to raise an equal amount from sources inside the country that had never given to Habitat before. (See “You Smile With Us” sidebar.)

Time passed, the money was raised, and the Osgoods were invited back to Latin America to see their gift at work. As they met the homeowners and volunteers in Guatemala and Costa Rica, they found themselves wondering: Maybe our friends in Oregon would like to be a part of this, too?

They did, indeed. In 2007, Dave and Judy began what would become a series of trips to Guatemala and Costa Rica. Organized through Habitat’s Global Village program, each excursion not only offered the Osgoods a chance to deepen relationships in Latin America that were quickly becoming dear to them, but it offered their friends at home the opportunity to experience a new dimension of Habitat’s work.

“It’s a booster shot,” Dave says. “We won’t do it forever; unfortunately we do get a little creakier as we get older, and the cinder blocks aren’t getting lighter. But we’re still having fun. We love the people, both the homeowners and staff . We get more out of it than we give, there’s no question.”

Their building group will expand this year, as they’ve planned two trips to Guatemala in 2010. Judy will lead one group of Oregon women connected by their efforts to raise scholarships for women who need financial help to go to college or graduate school; Dave will lead a group of alumni from Portland State University, his alma mater, to build as well.

All in the Family

Last year, Lizzy Haszczyn and friend Eileen Pearcey took their daughters, Becky and Stephanie, to Armenia for a weeklong build.

The group of five—the two families and a friend—built in Nshavan, a village 40 minutes from the Armenian capital where Habitat has been working to complete and renovate long-unfinished houses. They helped the Gevorgyan family with three children finish their half-built home, adopting a light-hearted approach to cementing, sanding and painting.

“It was amazing that the family allowed a group of foreign ladies to invade their house,” says Haszczyn, whose husband serves as Habitat’s regional vice president for Europe and Central Asia. “They tried to communicate with us, and we attempted, too. It was surprising how quickly we learned from each other.”

A Habitat build in a remote location might not be the first place that comes to mind for a mother-daughter vacation, but the benefits are compelling, Pearcey says. First, there’s the chance to spend more time together talking and listening, which is more difficult in the midst of the daily routine. And second, she says, such trips are an opportunity for families to “gain an understanding of what is important in life and see difficulties that other people might face. This teaches them to appreciate more what they have at home.”

The benefits of volunteering as a family last long after the trip has ended, a factor that has prompted Habitat’s Europe and Central Asia office to make family builds a more regular occurrence; this year, a similar build will take place in Armenia in July.

“We have a lot of wonderful memories of the times with the family and all the great things we did together socially,” Haszczyn says. “Some of these stories I know I will treasure for a lifetime.”