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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Students give a “hand up” with Habitat for Humanity

Published: February 28, 2014
Section: News

For 10 Brandeis students, February break was not filled with TV marathons, warm beaches or sleeping all day. Instead, they spent their time serving others: giving them “a hand up, not a hand out,” in line with the motto of Habitat for Humanity.

Members of the Brandeis chapter of Habitat for Humanity traveled to York, Penn., to spend the week at the build site for the Hanline family’s new home. They worked with the York affiliate of Habitat for Humanity to cut, put up, tape and float drywall for the first floor of the home.

This house was built with the Hanline family in mind. This is a multi-generational family, as the mother cares for her two children as well as her own mother. One of her children has a significant handicap, and the house is being built with his needs in mind.

“The halls are wider, and there is a track running from the older son’s room straight to the bathroom. In his previous home situation, he was unable to get around the home without his mother physically carrying him,” co-coordinator Kateri Spear ’15 said.

Spear was excited that the other students on the trip had the same vision as she and the other coordinators. They all want to be able to help people in a tangible, hands-on way. They are committed to working with a population in need, rather than for a population.

During the week, the students learned more about the area they were serving and Habitat’s mission. Although they initially had planned to travel to North Carolina, traveling to York was a shorter distance and cost the club less. Ian Christie ’16, a co-coordinator, was glad they chose to travel to York, saying that they worked with an excellent affiliate. The York chapter provided educational information and a presentation about the economic situation in the city. The students appreciated the information that allowed them to better understand the people they served.

“The mission of the organization is that everyone should have decent, affordable housing. Affordable means that less than 30 percent of your income is devoted to housing,” Christie said. “It’s a hand up, not a hand out. These are not all built for free,” he said.

The families are not simply given the homes; they pay for the homes with a 30-year mortgage, with zero-percent interest. Habitat helps alleviate housing concerns for people of low income, those who have 50-80 percent of the median income. There is a strenuous application prospective families must fill out, and they also must complete 250-500 “sweat equity hours.” This is time that the adults of the family give back to the organization, volunteering in different capacities to address the mission of Habitat for Humanity.

The families are also expected to go into debt counseling and complete financial literacy counseling.

“They’re enabling individuals who previously had limited success in home ownership or in a rental environment to take control of their finances and become more successful in their personal lives in this way,” Spear said. Families that buy a house through Habitat for Humanity have less than a 2-percent default rate, much lower than any bank.

For one day of the trip, the students visited the Bell Family Shelter. Students met with “interesting administrators and learned about the issues of economic depression in the area and how certain youth are coming back to the areas for a revitalization movement,” said Spear. They saw a holistic view of the economic situation in York and learned how immigration and emigration impacted the community.

Christie elaborated on the economic depression, saying that after the steel mills closed because the economy could not sustain them, people lost their salaries and economic security. York went from a booming city to a primarily low-income community.

“The organizational values that it’s structured around have really influenced how I perceive other not-for-profits. It provides not only the resources for success, but also the educational and intellectual tools for success,” Spear said.

Although the experience was overwhelmingly positive, the group did experience some difficulties. On the last day of the build, an older man, a volunteer, refused to work with a female Brandeis student because he said she was “weak,” Spear claimed. This was the first time Spear had experienced sexism in a service project, and she held a discussion with the rest of her team about the occurrence. “It was disappointing, but it wasn’t Habitat’s fault,” she said. They had a positive discussion, in which they agreed it was important to not make assumptions and not put gender at the forefront of what people are capable of. It was a chance for the group to realize that the rest of the world is not as aligned as people may want it to be, and there will still be challenges wherever one goes.

Members of the club have different ideas of what they want to do with their lives after college, but their experiences with Habitat for Humanity will inform the projects in which they participate and the way they work to help others. Spear said, “I do know about my future is that it will be in service. Regardless of where I end up I want to help people. The structure is probably going to change, but I have a need to help in the direct contact sort of way and that’s going to shape my future.” The opportunity to help people in such a direct capacity can help the students understand larger problems impacting the world and how they can take a hands-on approach to solving problems.

The club on campus typically offers three to four build opportunities for student volunteers per semester, offering a different type of commitment than most Waltham Group clubs. The co-coordinators are currently planning builds for this semester. Students can contact the club and sign up for their listserv to get involved.