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Hands-On Homebuilders

Explore a different side of the housing market -- as many corporations do -- by volunteering at Habitat for Humanity.

If you've ever felt the urge to put on a hard hat and swing a hammer as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, the opportunity may be closer than you think.

No experience is necessary, and in the time you give, you'll get a hands-on chance to help someone less fortunate realize their dream of home ownership.

I recently volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity project in Newark, N.J. There, within one six-block radius, nearly 60 families are living in homes built by Habitat, the only visible progress in a beleaguered neighborhood that was shattered by the city's infamous 1967 riots.

Hendricks Davis, executive director of the Newark Habitat for Humanity, led me around the headquarters, a ravaged former bank building that was acquired for $1 from a city that desperately needed help with rebuilding.

In 1991, Habitat staff and volunteers reconstructed the bank as a 10-share co-op, Habitat taking over two shares for its administrative offices and the rest purchased by first-time, low-income homebuyers.

Six of the original owners are still there, a sign of the stability that characterizes Habitat projects. "People commit their time and energy, and they're not likely to sell quickly," Hendricks explains.

How It Works

All new volunteers, like me, first undergo a brief orientation, including a short safety video and background on how Habitat for Humanity operates. (Many of the Newark branch's volunteers hail from local corporate offices including

Federal Express

,

TD Banknorth

,

Anheuser Busch

and

SBLI

.)

Like its counterparts, the Newark chapter is self-sustaining. Each of its homes costs about $85,000 to build and roughly 85% of the workers who build them are volunteers.

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Habitat builds houses with the help of homeowner or "partner" families, who are expected to contribute a minimum 400 hours of sweat equity -- working at their home's construction site every Saturday, for at least one year.

For the majority of the partner families, Habitat houses are a giant step away from the substandard housing in which they've lived for years. Motivated to break that negative cycle, these families undergo a rigorous application process that includes a thorough credit review.

Habitat houses are then sold to partner families at no profit, financed with affordable (0% interest) loans. The homeowners' monthly mortgage payments are funneled back into the organization, and used to build more Habitat houses.

Rebuilding a Neighborhood

After orientation, our band of volunteers headed on foot to a construction site two blocks away, where a row of three-bedroom single-family homes stood in various stages of completion.

We met the Habitat crew members who would guide us through the day, and donned hard hats, work gloves and goggles. We learned what the crew hoped to accomplish within the next eight hours: put up aluminum siding, install gutters and put up sheetrock in the rooms inside.

Considering they were working with mostly untrained volunteers, the Habitat construction crew members were extraordinarily patient and maintained a necessary sense of humor while they taught us what needed to be done.

My team's task was to assist one staff member and two volunteers who were on a scaffold, putting up gutters. I measured and cut the soffit that was hammered along the underside of the roof's edge, and helped with additional requests for tools and materials.

Considering the magnitude of detail that goes into building a house, my contributions seemed relatively small. But when the work day was over and we'd cleaned up all of the materials and stored the tools and equipment, I and my fellow volunteers looked over what we'd accomplished and knew we'd contributed significantly.

I returned to the location a few weeks later to see how much progress had been made. The house was really coming together, now completely sided, its interior lined with drywall, and electrical work in progress.

I'm due to work there again next weekend, and look forward to meeting the partner family who, if all goes according to plan, will be moved in just in time for the holidays. The ribbon-cutting ceremony for this and four neighboring Habitat houses is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Mobilized to Help

In the past 30 years, Habitat for Humanity International has built more than 200,000 houses worldwide, its work accomplished through 2,100 independently run affiliates in 92 countries and all 50 states in the U.S.

Mobilizing its steady corps of volunteer workers is perhaps what Habitat does best. This is especially true in the aftermath of natural disasters such as the 2005 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

The tangible, hands-on sense of accomplishing something is what draws people to this type of volunteer effort, says Jonathan Reckford, 42, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.

"Everyone at some level seeks connection and meaning," says Reckford. "It's not all about how much money we can make."

The support of volunteers has enabled tremendous progress on the Gulf Coast and in the tsunami region.

"We are well on track to build 1,000 houses on the Gulf Coast by next summer," Reckford notes.

But Hurricane Katrina's damage is eclipsed by what Reckford has witnessed in the tsunami region.

"As bad as the images look, they don't do justice to the devastation," he says.

The organization remains focused on its goal to place 12,000 families in new homes there.

"We've finished six thousand homes along the Indian Ocean basin. It's by far the biggest single project ever undertaken by Habitat for Humanity," Reckford says.

Corporate Support

Prior to being named CEO of Habitat for Humanity International in 2005, Reckford served for two years as executive pastor of a large Presbyterian church in Edina, Minn. But he is no stranger to the business world: His career began on Wall Street at

Goldman Sachs

, and he has held senior management positions for companies including

Marriott

,

Disney

,

Circuit City

and

Best Buy

.

Today, Habitat for Humanity maintains effective partnerships with corporations, religious organizations and individuals who support its mission by providing financial backing, building supplies and volunteer help.

"

Whirlpool Corporation

provides volunteers, funding and a new range and refrigerator in every Habitat house that's built in the United States. Thrivent Financial, a nonprofit Fortune 500 financial services organization, last year pledged $105 million to build new homes all over the world," says Reckford, who also cites corporate partners including

Citigroup

,

Bank of America

,

Dow Chemical

,

Lowe's

and

Wells Fargo

.

"What's exciting is that we're really integrated into these companies. There's huge participation from their employees, and they in turn believe their companies are good places to work," he continues.

With Habitat projects in progress all over the globe, Reckford is now focused on growing the organization over the next five years to serve more families in need, as well as helping to sustain a decent quality of life for partner families that extends beyond just building their homes.

"The theme of partnership is critical for us, particularly with government and other nonprofits, so that as we build, services like sanitation, water and education are taken care of," he says.

Reckford continues: "We are also exploring housing microfinancing in countries with microlending organizations. They can make the loans; we can help families build."

To find a Habitat for Humanity affiliate near you, go to www.habitat.org and click on the "Local Affiliates" link.

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Anne McDarby is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her professional experience includes work as a newspaper reporter and editor in northern New Jersey and more than 15 years in health care public relations and marketing.