Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Habitat for Humanity and our upcoming Global Village build in Thailand.

Hi there. Jen here. As any of our faithful readers know, we at Slowly Global have volunteered our time and muscles in exchange for food, lodging, and some valuable (and sometimes crazy) learning experiences - weeding many gardens, fixing countless fences, herding wayward goats, relocating chickens, stomping grapes, mucking tons of manure, burning piles and piles (and piles) of leaves... The list goes on and on.

We are so excited to be participating in a two-week Global Village build with Habitat for Humanity near Bangkok, Thailand. This will be very different from our other volunteer gigs. Patrick is totally new to the world of Habitat but it's been near to my heart for many years, so I wanted to take a moment to explain why I dragged him into this why we chose to participate.

I got involved with Habitat for Humanity's East Bay affiliate in 1998. I had always admired the organization but I'd been shy about volunteering. (My construction skills were limited to helping Dad around the house - how could I possibly help with Habitat homes?) At the time I'd just moved to Oakland and didn't know anyone outside of work, and this seemed like a good place to meet like-minded folks and support a good cause. Habitat East Bay's web site promised "no construction experience necessary" so I signed up for a Saturday build.

It was so much fun that I went back the next Saturday. And the Saturday after that, and the following Saturday too. The more I volunteered, the more I enjoyed volunteering. Swinging hammers and using power tools was empowering! Being tired at the end of the day from actual manual labor (and seeing the physical evidence of your labor) was so rewarding! And all those Build-a-Thons - raising money for a great cause and helping frame a bunch of houses in just four days? So cool!

I did meet some great people at the construction site. The staff and Americorps were friendly, fun, and always willing to give you a new challenge (like using a nail gun while balancing on a steep sloped roof with no ladder or scaffolding nearby... don't try that at home, kids!). And the volunteers usually were like-minded and willing to grab a beer after a hard Saturday's work.

But getting to know the Habitat families and watching their joy at house dedications was definitely always the highlight for me. Happy tears were definitely the norm on house dedication days. Some families who'd already moved in would even come out on Saturdays to help their neighbors build their homes - so inspiring.

As I volunteered I got more familiar with how Habitat operates. For those of you who don't know, Habitat "believes that every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live." They offer homeownership through no-profit, no-interest mortgages to qualifying families. There are three basic criteria that families must meet in order to qualify. Each Habitat affiliate can apply specific details for these criteria based on their local community's needs (something I really like about the organization) but essentially:

1) Families must show a need for decent, affordable housing. Overcrowded, unsanitary, and/or ridiculously overpriced housing are all factors that weigh into this criteria.

2) Families must qualify financially. Usually this means steady income and good credit... Just like you, Mr./Ms. Homeowner.

3) Families must be willing to partner with Habitat. This usually means that families agree to contribute a non-trivial number of "sweat equity" hours working alongside staff and volunteers to build their homes. This can get tricky if you're working two jobs or caring for kids, but families somehow make it work. (Some affiliates apply other "partnership" criteria as well.)

To clear up possible misconceptions, Habitat is a "hand up", not a "hand out" - families are not "given houses for free", they pay mortgages (and sometimes downpayments) just like you. Also, Habitat is "faith-based", not "religious" - there is no discrimination based on religious beliefs (or race, or other factors for that matter). I support basic faith-based principles like treating everyone decently, but I would never support an organization that wouldn't have Agnostic Me as a client.

And finally - no, in my ten years with Habitat East Bay I never met Jimmy Carter! (I did get to participate in a build day in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina though. That was pretty amazing.)

Anyway, the more I learned, the more I respected the organization's structure and commitment to setting families up for successful homeownership. Consistently seeing it score four star ratings on Charity Navigator helped as well. So I volunteered at the construction site and I gave money to the organization.

And then I met Tony.

Tony ran a volunteer committee that worked with families after they moved into their homes to make sure their success as homeowners continued. Ongoing homeowner education - from finances to home maintenance and everything in between - and college prep for Habitat youth were two key areas for this committee.

What? The partnership didn't end when Habitat handed over the keys? That was awesome! Not all affiliates work this way, but East Bay's did, and I jumped at the opportunity to help out.

(Actually, Tony recruited me. This guy could sell ice cubes in Antarctica - I really had no chance. But I still thank him to this day.)

As the years passed I would find myself chairing that committee, serving on the Board of Directors, and working as Habitat East Bay's Director of Homeowner Relations (managing everything from family selection onward). And, yes, still going out to swing a hammer now and then. The volunteers were all great and the families continued to leave their mark on me. When I joined the payroll I took on the most challenging but most rewarding job I will probably ever have, and I learned that Habitat's staff were some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I have ever met. I feel privileged to have been in such good company for all those years.

Now I have an opportunity to rejoin Habitat's community while helping in a broader way. Global Village builds always intrigued me and one of my goals on our round-the-world trek was to see if a Global Village build was feasible, so recently I looked into the SE Asia schedule. Timing for the Chang Mai, Thailand build was perfect - but that team was already full.

However! The Bangkok, Thailand build around the same time had two spaces so I inquired. Within an hour John, the trip leader, had signed us up - and, after perusing all of our RTW blah blah blah here, he also signed me up as the group's official blogger! Serendipity at its finest.

I am thrilled to be able to give back to Habitat while we make our way through Thailand. I'm really curious to see how similar/different the operations are between the US and SE Asia. And I am super excited to show Patrick why I love Habitat for Humanity, and to share our story here with you.

Like many Habitat events, Global Village builds are fundraisers. More than 8 million families in Thailand need decent, affordable housing today. We're trying to raise at least $4000 in order to participate without digging into our travel fund; any additional funds raised will help with Habitat's future housing needs. If you would like to make a contribution toward Slowly Global's fundraising goal, please click here to donate.

If not, it's all good! We all have our charitable organizations of choice. One of mine is Habitat for Humanity. I hope I've given you a little insight into why, and I hope you enjoy reading about our adventure with the Thailand Global Village build in June!