The role of special events in Habitat for Humanity -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The role of special events in Habitat for Humanity

By Jonathan Reckford

Early last November, as the sun began to drop on a build site outside Mumbai, India, I stood with a few dozen volunteers I had worked with all week, and we dedicated houses with two new Habitat homeowners.

One of the homeowners, Aziz, draped his arm across the shoulder of his new neighbor, Subhash, and said, “We come from different faiths and different castes, but now we are brothers.”

To me, that sums up as well as anything why we work so hard to further our impact in all reaches of the planet. It also illustrates part of the transformation that special events can leave in the lives of people.

What led me on that trip to India was the 23rd annual Jimmy Carter Work Project, a signature event that has resulted in several thousand Habitat houses in dozens of locations around the world. Former U.S. President Carter and his wife Rosalynn have been tremendous partners in our work by lending their labor and leadership to the organization for more than two decades.

While the annual JCWP is the longest-running, most widely recognized Habitat for Humanity project, it is certainly not the only one. Since the early days of this ministry, special events have played an important role in expanding our capacity to serve more families.

There were legendary “walk-a-thons” in which Habitat volunteers and supporters marched hundreds of miles to celebrate a particular milestone in the organization’s history. There were “Easter Morning Builds” in the late 1990s in Habitat’s hometown of Americus, resulting in dozens of new houses “blitz built” during Holy Week.

The JCWP itself has traveled to such distant places as South Africa and the Philippines, to the Republic of Korea, New York City, Hungary, Mexico, Michigan and the Appalachian Mountains.

Other special events have drawn together many more volunteers in places like El Salvador, Armenia and Canada.

Whatever the nature of a Habitat special event, whatever name we might assign it, each shares with another the same ultimate purpose: to help serve more families by raising awareness of poverty housing and engaging more partners in our drive to create decent housing opportunities across the globe.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of high-profile projects. Just after joining Habitat, I helped build and dedicate Habitat’s 200,000th house in Knoxville, Tennessee. Less than a half-hour later, staff and volunteers dedicated the 200,001st home thousands of miles away in Kuttapuly village, Kanyakumari, India. To draw more attention to our hurricane Katrina recovery effort Operation Home Delivery, Habitat hosted special builds at major sporting events across the U.S. and at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Across the U.S. during a single week last summer, the Home Builders Blitz took place simultaneously in 130 locations.

No matter the event’s location, size or duration, I found in each occasion an opportunity to celebrate and highlight the important work God calls us to. At the same time, however, I’ve always felt it important that we remain humble in light of the vast housing challenge that confronts us. Doing otherwise would be like excessively celebrating a score in a match that finds us woefully trailing our opponent.

So it’s important to strike a balance when planning and executing special events around the world. Will the benefits, for example, justify the time, effort and expense necessary for implementation? In what ways will the participants learn about and engage in housing issues globally—and in Habitat’s work in particular?

In this edition of “The Forum,” you’ll read Habitat staffers’ insight into these questions and others. You’ll read of the impact special builds have had on participants and communities, and you’ll read perspectives about why volunteers find these events so engaging.

High-profile projects are multi-layered in both their complexities and their advantages. Planning them means extraordinary amounts of time and effort—experiencing them, equal amounts of excitement and anticipation. They can inspire novice and seasoned volunteers alike and bridge people across philosophical, geographic and racial divides.

And, invariably, they create an enormous amount of publicity. The JCWP in India, for instance, generated 8 million media impressions in print alone, to say nothing of television, radio and Internet reports. They can springboard further building efforts in a particular city, country or region, and they help toll the bell not only for better living conditions worldwide, but for the families themselves who so urgently need better shelter as well.

And at the end of the day, after the food tents are folded, the volunteers shuttled away, there’s hardly a moment more meaningful than when a family gains access to a decent home they can afford—or when two neighbors like Aziz and Subhash come together as “brothers.”

Jonathan Reckford is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.