Words by Andra Mayberry
Photography provided by Ezra Millstein of Habitat for Humanity International and taken by Landi Whitefield
Hood County’s Habitat for Humanity enters its 20th year in August and after building homes for more than 80 families, there is no end in sight for this dynamic, life-changing organization.
Worldwide, Habitat for Humanity has made immeasurable differences in the lives of almost 7 million people and there is an unmistakeable impact that giving back has on its volunteers. With the construction of new homes, renovation of existing homes and a whole-hearted investment in our communities, Habitat breathes new life into many families who simply need a leg up. This principle is practiced with every single build, and also right here in Hood County.
We are all just one crisis away from needing help. Thus, the global organization was founded in 1976 after Millard and Linda Fuller were inspired to put an idea they had seen in Sumter County, Georgia into practice in Zaire, where they entered the missionary field. The idea was simple: a community of individuals come together to help better the lives of their neighbors in need of better housing – not just by handing out money or tangible goods, but by working together to help build and then own their home. The recipient families then make payments on a no-interest loan and are offered opportunities to be mentored on the ideals of financial stability. In short, this is called partnership housing.
At the core of Habitat for Humanity are the volunteers. These individuals are made up of student groups, church organizations, business employees, veteran associations and retirees. If you ask any volunteer what it is they find most fulfilling, they will tell you it’s about putting that hard helmet on and doing work that actually means something. Some volunteers would swear Dedication Day, the ceremony when the family receives their key and enters their own home for the first time, is a spiritual experience.
Just ask Hood County’s 19-year veteran volunteer, Ronald Barrett. After retiring from a 30-year career as a DPS Officer, Barrett and his wife moved to Granbury. Following a conversation with an Acton Baptist Church friend about being a little bored in his retirement, she suggested he come out to a Habitat build where she provided lunches for the volunteers. He came on board with Habitat soon after, and has been a part of nearly every build since.
Barrett’s very first task was to dig a ditch for a foundation. “We don’t do it like that anymore, but it was just plain ol’ work. When we went out, they just needed bodies to work. After running a jackhammer, they wondered if I was gonna come back or not,” he chuckles. But Barrett did show up for the next house and he hasn’t stopped yet. The kind of labor a typical Habitat volunteer performs can vary, from hauling drywall panels and lumber to picking up loose nails and painting walls. As well, newcomers seem to fall in line and grasp exactly what task they need to accomplish to further the mission.
Volunteers: The Foundation of Habitat for Humanity
Barrett testifies that the benefits of volunteering for a build are not just in the brick and mortar, but in the human effect of reaching out to give someone a helping hand. “Those are my best days – the days I get up and go to Habitat,” he says.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, “volunteers are more likely than those who do not volunteer to experience positive health benefits. In fact, serving others may increase longevity, lead to greater functional ability later in life, and strengthen one’s resilience when dealing with health problems.” Just like Barrett, a substantial percentage of Hood County residents are retirees. The act of putting years of wisdom and experience to work to create a positive experience for families in your community is awe-inspiring. Volunteers, especially retirees, come from all walks of life and have so much to offer with their varied knowledge. It seems giving back allows the human heart a chance to repay those divine favors we’ve all been blessed with and in the process, a healing of sorts takes place.
For those on the fence about whether Habitat is the cause they want to join, Barrett says, “I would just recommend they come out and work with the people out there – the Habitat volunteers. Plus, get to know the families. After you get to know the families, it changes your whole attitude in what you’re doing [while] working beside them.”
Barrett says he’ll never forget one particular ceremony when, “the young son kept pushing the doorbell and I heard him tell somebody, ‘I’ve never had a doorbell before. I’ve never lived in a house with a doorbell.’”
Volunteers who are present on Dedication Day often say there are no words to describe the joy and love felt when that key is handed over. Barrett says, “They’re just so excited at what they see and they’re so grateful. [When you get] the hugs from families at the end of it or a ‘thank you,’ you can see in their eyes how they appreciate what you’re doing. That’s all the pay you can ask for.”
May 15, 2013 EF-4 Tornado Strikes
The commitment to making lives better was no more evident than in the aftermath of the deadly May 15, 2013, EF-4 tornado. The devastating storm seemed to directly target itself over the community of Rancho Brazos, where 60 Habitat homes were damaged or destroyed and as many families were displaced. “As soon as we were able to, we got out there and saw what was happening. When you see houses that you just got through building completely gone and knowing how the families have lost everything out there, it’s heartbreaking,” Barrett says. Just four hours before the tornado touched down in Rancho Brazos, Habitat volunteers had put the finishing touches on Olga Hernandez’ house and the dedication ceremony was scheduled to take place just three days later, on May 18.
Within hours of the reopening of the neighborhood, Habitat volunteers from Hood County and neighboring Trinity HfH of Fort Worth, poured into the area and rebuilt homes in record time during what is called a blitz build. “One thing that makes Habitat so good is the people in Hood County are so good to us. They take care of us. They do things for us and it’s really been so rewarding,” Barrett recalls. Not only the people of Hood County, but the entire nation focused its eyes on the urgent need in this Habitat neighborhood.
Shortly after the ravaged area was cleared for access, the GM Foundation pledged $500,000 to Habitat for Humanity International to support the cleanup and rebuild efforts across Hood County. At the same time, Community Bank began working with Hood County Habitat to rebuild, raising local donations of more than $160,000 in six weeks. The desperately needed funds allowed Habitat to secure private contractors to come in and intensify the rebuild efforts.
In only six months, by November 2013, 46 of the 60 families were back in their homes. That fact alone demonstrates the passion and determination sincerely felt in the hearts of volunteers and Habitat families.
There’s a growing segment in our population who are forced to work two to three jobs just to pay the rent for inadequate housing. Hood County is no different.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “nowhere in the U.S. will a full-time minimum wage job pay for a median one-bedroom apartment and in 30 states, two minimum-wage jobs won’t cover the rent.”
The effects of this type of pressure can be disastrous for families. Children who grow up in inadequate housing are more likely to suffer in the long run. According to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of its How Housing Matters to Families and Communities Research Initiative, “poor housing quality was the most consistent and strongest predictor of emotional and behavioral problems in low-income children and youth.” Furthermore, parental stress caused the inability to provide for their children adds to the breakdown of the family.
Habitat for Humanity’s core beliefs are about altering society to empower families, one build at a time. In fact, among Habitat’s guiding principles is the belief that, “No one lives in dignity until everyone can live in dignity. We believe that every person has something to contribute and something to gain from creating communities in which all people have decent, affordable places to live. We believe that dignity and hope are best achieved through equitable, accountable partnerships.”
The Partner Families who are carefully selected as Habitat homeowners, undergo a rigorous application process and must meet several qualifications to be considered. These individuals must demonstrate the need for better housing, make a long-term commitment to partner with Habitat and put in a minimum of 300 sweat equity hours in building their house. The fact that the families make monthly mortgage payments to pay the home off, fosters a sense of ownership and demonstrates perseverance to children. Habitat also goes the distance by offering free financial counseling services to continue the work of altering the family home base.
There’s room for everyone at Hood County Habitat for Humanity and with continued community support for this worthy organization, our little corner of the world will keep flourishing. Perhaps founder Millard Fuller put it best when he said, “A house is to a family what soil is to a plant. A plant needs to be rooted. A family is like that. If a family is not rooted, it will not flourish. But once a family is well-rooted, all kinds of wonderful things will begin to happen.”