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Building a future -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Building a future

Engaging tomorrow’s volunteers today, Habitat affiliates find a fountain of youth.
By Shala Carlson

 

 

Students from Michigan’s Forest Hills Northern High School gather to celebrate the dedication of the Habitat house they helped build.

   


It didn’t take a lifetime of experience for Kate Sim to understand why Habitat works.

When Kate’s family emigrated from Korea to California, their living arrangement made a lasting impression.

“The five of us rented an apartment with two bedrooms,” she recalls. “It was a temporary stay, but I remember how uncomfortable it was.”

Something else that made an impression was the value her parents had always placed on being with family—the idea, she says, “that a physical place to hold a family played a main role in preserving a family.”

As time moved on, Kate found herself drawn to community service, anything that might help her connect to “real things happening in the real world.

“It only took me minutes to realize that Habitat and I would get along,” she says. Kate joined the Pomona Valley affiliate as an outreach volunteer, sharing information and collecting donations, even becoming a Habitat ambassador for a major event like the Los Angeles County Fair—all activities that might seem familiar to Habitat regulars. One thing was different, though.

 

 

Habitat Greater Los Angeles youth volunteers prepare for their annual march in the Kingdom Day parade, held in honor of the late Martin Luther King Jr.

   



Kate was 15 years old.

Habitat for Humanity International’s youth programs seek to harness the interest and inspiration of young people, whether it’s a 5-year-old first learning about poverty housing in the pages of a coloring book, a 15-year-old helping a school fundraise to build a Habitat house, or a twenty something college student using spring break as a time to give something back.

From service learning to student-initiated advocacy, from campus chapters to Collegiate Challenge, from affiliate-structured activities to grassroots efforts, thousands of youth volunteers lend their enthusiasm and their ideas every year to their local affiliates. These young volunteers are moving Habitat forward and having fun, all at the same time.

“The creativity, enthusiasm and leadership youth volunteers bring to Habitat for Humanity are vital,” says Alynn Woodson, Habitat’s director of youth volunteer engagement. “Every day, young people are building during their school breaks, fundraising on their campuses, revitalizing neighborhoods in their communities and becoming educated advocates for affordable housing. They are making a lasting impact on the world right now—and they are building skills to lead this movement into the future.”

“These young people that are doing this—whether they are 5 or 25—these are the people that I want to help shape my son and to shape the world that he’s going to live in,” says Heather Paul, who serves as a board member for Habitat of McLean County in Bloomington, Ill., and works as a community development specialist with State Farm, which has sponsored Habitat’s youth programs since 2007. “I want people to understand and see how incredibly awesome these young people are, regardless of their ages.”

 

 

Habitat Montgomery County Maryland’s toy block blitz build familiarizes youngsters with the Habitat concept.

   



Ben Lewis liked to build, but the construction materials he used were colorful, plastic and interlocking. Too young to build on a Habitat site, the 13-year-old approached his local affiliate—Habitat of Montgomery County Maryland—with the idea of starting a youth group.

From that initial conversation, Ben began working with then-AmeriCorps VISTA member Jessica Reid on the idea of a build event for elementary and high school kids, but one using toy building blocks. “The whole idea is to take the blitz build idea and shrink it down,” Reid explains.

The event, now in its third year, is held on a weekend afternoon in a local mall; teams of three build houses, which are oft en “sponsored” by local businesses. During the table-top build event, Habitat staff are on hand to answer questions, share information about volunteering and homeownership, and sign up parents as online advocates. Younger kids can play at activity tables, making paper houses or decorating hammer- and house-shaped cookies.

“People love it,” says Reid, who now serves as the affiliate’s director of volunteer and family services. “A lot of people are coming because it’s an activity for their kids, and then they come and learn about Habitat. It’s a modest fundraiser for us, but it’s just a good way to get kids thinking about Habitat and thinking about housing.”

That first year, Ben recruited friends to help out with the event, and the same core group still assists with planning, team recruitment and logistics. A larger youth program has grown up around that original event. This past summer, Ben was able to participate in his first full-scale Habitat build, and he says he looks forward to continued involvement with the cause that caught his teenage attention. “It’s just great that you can actually meet who you’re helping and see what’s happening,” he says. “You can see the houses being built. Seeing them completed is really satisfying.”

Various groups of high school students have experienced that same satisfaction, starting with nothing and finishing with a Habitat house.

Last year, the student council of Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., agreed to take on the task of fundraising for and building a home with a local partner family. Students spearheaded a host of activities to raise money: pre-game spaghetti dinners, dances with dedicated admission fees, a babysitting night at the school where kids could shoot hoops with the basketball team, an auction of Adirondack chairs built and decorated by shop classes. A subset of student volunteers worked with the affiliate on presentations and visited local businesses and individuals who might contribute larger donations toward construction. In the end, the 300 or so students who came together to support the Habitat Kent County building project raised about $72,000. Teachers and parents came out to help with construction.

“I think most of us remember high school as being a whole bunch of ways to divide kids up,” says Habitat Kent County executive director Pam Doty-Nation. “But this group focused on one project and therefore their identity was really formed around that—as opposed to I’m on the football team, or I’m a cheerleader, or I’m in the Spanish club. All these groups came together for one purpose, and it really changed the dynamic.”

In Chattanooga, Tenn., for several years, students from two schools have teamed up to build Habitat houses. McCallie School and Girls Preparatory School have both hosted an array of fundraisers, selling T-shirts and Valentine’s roses and coordinating pledges-per-point for the home football game on parents’ weekend. At McCallie, other student organizations such as the National Honor Society have sometimes chipped in their own funds toward that year’s Habitat project.

“We’ve chosen to say that anyone at McCallie is part of that chapter,” says dean of residential life and now-Habitat Chattanooga board member Sumner McCallie, who routinely brings in nonprofit guest speakers, including Habitat homeowners and volunteers, to address the student body during the school’s chapel sessions. “We started by looking at what the school was already doing and what traditions the school already had that we could fit into, as opposed to completely re-creating the wheel.”

Some McCallie students also choose to go on Global Village trips during their breaks. Recent alumni Alex Hostetler became involved with Habitat during his junior year and ended up traveling to Tanzania before his graduation. “To see how much of a difference we had actually made in someone’s life,” he says, “was a pretty cool thing.”

Back in California, Kate Sim, now 18, is still involved with Habitat, serving as president of Habitat Greater Los Angeles’ Youth United program, one of a whole host of youth activities the affiliate offers. Her involvement with Habitat, Kate says, “has made a huge impact on who I am and how I perceive things, and I would love to continue this for the rest of my life.”

In that case, mission accomplished, says Deborah Lewis, the Los Angeles affiliate’s programs manager. “Volunteers don’t start when they’re 16 or when they can first come on to a build site,” she says. “There are younger people who can help, whether it’s through advocacy or education or even preparing them to be a construction leader or donor when they are older. We can instill leadership, instill confidence in them now. We want for them to help us accomplish our mission, but we can really pour into their lives, too. And I think that’s a beneficial relationship for everyone involved.”

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