It may be hard to believe Habitat for Humanity International’s path to becoming a leader in the housing field began on a community farm in Georgia in 1942. When biblical scholar Clarence Jordan partnered with Habitat’s eventual founders, Millard and Linda Fuller, to develop a concept to provide adequate shelter working side-by-side with volunteers to build decent, affordable homes, no one could have anticipated it would evolve to create over 9 million housing opportunities for vulnerable individuals worldwide and a global commitment to support 200 million by 2030.
Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity now engages 2 million volunteers yearly who complete projects in over 1,300 communities across the U.S. and in nearly 70 countries worldwide.
“Habitat volunteers have always been the hands, hearts and voices of Habitat– the backbone of the organization, providing their valuable time and resources to build homes and stronger communities in partnership with their neighbors,” says Christopher Ptomey, Habitat for Humanity International senior director of government relations.
In fiscal year 2016, Habitat volunteers improved the housing conditions of three million people in communities around the world. Around 30,000 of those individuals were in the U.S., where Habitat affiliates built, repaired and rehabilitated 10,292 homes. Edwina Sheppard, 72, of Omaha, Neb., has witnessed this first-hand. After spending 41 years in her home, Sheppard watched her neighborhood deteriorate. Living near abandoned homes and seeing the home next to her catch fire, she felt unsafe, but could not afford to move. But in 2014, all this changed when she connected with Habitat volunteers and staff who came into her Kountze Park neighborhood to rehabilitate homes and beautify the neighborhood.
“It’s beautiful what Habitat has done here,” says Sheppard. “My environment has changed for the better. Now I can look out the window and see children playing.”
In addition to building and rehabilitating homes, Habitat also provides resources to help families break the cycle of poverty. At Beaches Habitat for Humanity in Atlantic Beach, Fla., more than 25 volunteers, many of whom are retired teachers, provide after-school tutoring, SAT and college prep training, reading fluency assistance and more to all the children living in the neighborhood, regardless of whether or not they live in a Habitat home. “[Volunteers] should know they are helping children believe in themselves. This is something that can’t be measured,” shares Kathy Christensen, director of education at Beaches Habitat for Humanity.
“The goal is to provide educational opportunities to children, so they can improve their economic future and won’t qualify for a Habitat home,” says Christensen.
One such success story is that of a student who participated in Beaches’ education program since kindergarten. This student graduated from University of North Florida last month with a degree in criminal justice using a college scholarship that Beaches Habitat administers. Successes like this prove the impact a community can have in making a difference, and Habitat views this as part of its neighborhood revitalization strategy. Whether it’s starting a youth program, creating a community watch program or building a new park, Habitat works with residents to leverage partnerships, so a neighborhood can experience a holistic revitalization.
“Habitat looks to the residents to share their aspirations and for their input on community solutions,” explains Rebecca Hix, Habitat for Humanity International director of neighborhood revitalization. “And this all comes together when residents themselves take on volunteer roles such as taking a lead on creating a youth program or completing a community clean-up project.”
Recent expansions of the Habitat model to revitalize neighborhoods and to improve government housing policy are creating new opportunities for volunteers to support Habitat’s efforts to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter. And Habitat is not slowing up. One goal of Habitat’s 2020 strategic plan is to improve the housing of 25 million people globally through advocacy by 2020.
“Through efforts such as Habitat’s global Solid Ground Campaign for access to land for shelter, millions of people have already benefited from policy changes advocated by Habitat, and Habitat’s global network is well on its way to achieving its ambitious goal. More than ever, Habitat organizations understand the transformative impact that stable, high quality, low cost housing can have for lower income households and the neighborhoods and communities in which they live,” says Ptomey.