When the words “Habitat for Humanity” are mentioned many thoughts spring to mind like “free houses”, “decreasing homelessness”, or maybe even “fun spring break trips”.
The reality is that many myths surround both the organization and the Spring Break trips, and the true value of the organization exists not in providing free houses (which it doesn’t) or in a fun experience for a week.
Habitat serves people both future homeowners and collegiate students by helping them serve themselves, living by the tagline “A hand up, not a hand out”.
Every potential homeowner for Habitat goes through a screening process because all of them are required to be able to pay off and sustain their new houses. The point of this is not to decrease homelessness, it’s to better the quality of life.
In the fall of 2015 Gustavus students went to Alexandria and built a home for a family that included a girl named Kira who had Spina Bifida. Kira’s condition limited her ability to walk without a walker and previous to their new home they lived in the second story of an apartment building which had no elevator. In her new home Kira had wide doors built, ramps that made the outside accessible, and children around her she could play with.
Homelessness is an issue, but Habitat’s specialty is tackling affordable housing dilemmas. The current housing market is suffering. Home loan interest rates can be drowning and can prevent families from reaching the highest potential of their homes.
Construction companies and banks have too much red tape to offer uplifting opportunities for families. So Habitat functions as both bank and construction company. Habitat builds the home specifically for the family and funds the house, but an interest free mortgage comes with the home that the homeowners will have to pay off.
Habitat empowers homeowners by cutting through the red tape to give families the ability to have their own home.
The bread and butter of Habitat though is teaching people to help themselves. Not only do homeowners pay for their houses, they also go through hours and hours of “sweat equity”.
Typically, this entails about 500 hours of volunteering their time on both build sites and in financial classes. Many sites won’t even break ground until the family volunteers a certain number of hours. This gives the homeowners a strong connection to their home and more personal responsibility for its upkeep, as well as preparing them to make sustainably fiscal decisions.
On that same note, Habitat’s purpose is not to prepare a fun trip for volunteering students. Of course, each trip is fun. Students come back with friends, inside jokes, and memories of their trip.
More importantly though, students come back having experienced a week’s worth of service. This experience is like touching a toe to water before diving in, each student comes back with the tools to serve their community further.
These tools are not limited to Habitat for Humanity. Students on the trips come back humbled by experiencing a taste of a social difficulty that they helped to solve. Students don’t come back from Habitat having saved the world, but they do come back realizing they can make a difference.