Even if one has never heard of Habitat for Humanity, the name is likely to predispose one to feel sympathetic to its purpose. A habitat is the one thing that we can all agree is a basic necessity for well-being, both physical and mental. Therefore, when I was invited to write an article about the work of Habitat for Humanity, I immediately seized the opportunity to learn about the organization and explore opportunities for volunteers.
RSVP Program Coordinator Jan Hancock and I met with Margie Law, who is the Director of Volunteer Programs for the Seattle-King County Habitat for Humanity affiliate. We met in their lovely Renton offices. I’ve known about Habitat for decades, always associating it with former President Jimmy Carter, who is frequently shown in photographs at a Habitat construction site wielding a hammer – and who I thought had founded the organization after his Presidency. I found instead that a Georgian businessman had decided years before that since habitation is a universal necessity and in short supply worldwide, he would found an organization devoted to that purpose. The first Habitat homes were built in Georgia, and in September of 1976, Habitat for Humanity International was born.
The Seattle-King County Habitat affiliate formed from merging three separate Habitat affiliates operating in various segments of King County. The first Habitat affiliate in the greater Seattle area was formed in 1986.
The organization functions in a unique fashion. Financial donations are always needed and welcome, but the work of creating habitats depends on the labor of volunteers and on the family who will inhabit the structure. Imagine the pleasure in knowing that one is building a structure for one’s own family.
Over the years, the organization has put a great deal of effort into the analysis and planning for successful construction, from the smallest details to more complex operations. Among the aspects which require planning are the methodology for selecting families in need of housing, who can benefit from a program which offers a 20- or 30-year loan without interest, as well as the creation of an open and transparent process starting with group meetings for applicants. Consideration of the labor that adult members of the family will contribute – and what social and emotional support they will require during the building process – are key concerns in moving forward.
Another part of planning is the criteria for selection of a site for construction or alternatively, selection of a building for renovation or rehabilitation, with attention given to the potential for neighborhood revitalization. Also important is planning for the acquisition of all the necessary permits as well as the cost of building materials, beyond any contribution of materials. Finally, there is planning for the inclusion of volunteer labor as well as the labor of the selected applicant.
Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King County is increasingly focused on neighborhood revitalization as a way to address the housing needs of low-income families and ensuring the viability of the surrounding community to meet the social and practical needs of the larger community. They envision working with other community organizations toward these goals.
In King County last year, 3,666 volunteers volunteered their time to Habitat, including a unit of AmeriCorps personnel who have committed to a 10-month service program where they receive a monthly stipend and educational award.
RSVP volunteers could provide very important services through the Family Support Program by mentoring families as they transition into home ownership; other volunteers who have the physical energy are also needed in construction work.
As I listened to Margie Law’s description of the Habitat program, I found it inspirational. Only the creaking in my bones reminded me that my urge to participate in a physical way is unrealistic, but that I could support the work of this unique organization by spreading word throughout our community about the program, the families they are helping (many of whom are immigrants) and the opportunities for volunteers.
This is what I am doing now and what I will continue to do. You can help too by calling RSVP at 206.694.6785 to find out more about how you can make a difference by volunteering at Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King County.