Building Futures

Habitat for Humanity is changing lives, and changing the community

“This has been a life changing experience for me, <a href=

unhealthy ” says Lisa Tucker, order in her new home with her three-year-old son Luca. “But what’s impacted me the most are the countless volunteers that showed up every day to build a house for someone they didn’t even know.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”×436.jpg” width=”602″ height=”436″ /> “This has been a life changing experience for me,” says Lisa Tucker, in her new home with her three-year-old son Luca. “But what’s impacted me the most are the countless volunteers that showed up every day to build a house for someone they didn’t even know.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

If you happen to walk by the new building project at 1580 Piercy Avenue in Courtenay you are likely to hear the sounds of hammers, saws, and power tools of new homes being built. That’s pretty standard. What’s not standard are the type of people you’ll see building the homes. Instead of the usual construction crew, at this site you’re likely to see teams of women sporting pink hard hats and pink t-shirts, or men and women of all ages laughing and sharing stories as they raise walls and swing hammers. These amazing people are the volunteers who have decided to devote their free time to build houses for people they might not even know.

These volunteers are the backbone of an organization called Habitat for Humanity. Every 24 hours, nearly 150 new homes are built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers. In Canada, more than 63,000 volunteers work with Habitat every year. That’s a lot of swinging hammers—and it’s also a lot of love.

Habitat for Humanity started in 1976, when a wealthy businessman, Mr. Millard Fuller, decided to scrap it all and devote his life to helping the poor. He started Habitat for Humanity by developing the idea of partnership housing, which called for families in need to partner with volunteers to build simple, decent, and affordable homes.

Habitat for Humanity is based on a model that is elegantly simple—Habitat homes are built on donated or discounted land using donated or discounted materials and volunteer labor, all which keep the house costs low. The partner families purchase the houses with no interest loans and the monthly payment goes into a revolving fund that is used to build more houses. Habitat calls it the revolving fund for humanity.

In addition, Habitat for Humanity operates ReStores in many locations to fund the administrative and fundraising costs of the organization. ReStores are run entirely by volunteers and are stocked with used or discounted home items sold at a great price. ReStores are a bargain hunter’s paradise. And since the store’s profit covers the overhead costs of the organization, any additional monetary donations go entirely toward purchasing supplies for the new homes.

Since its inception, Habitat for Humanity has used this simple and effective model over and over to build more than half a million homes around the globe, spanning 80 countries. And each and every one of those homes was built entirely with volunteer labor and what Habitat calls ‘sweat equity.’

Sweat equity equals at least 500 hours of volunteer work that must be completed by the prospective homeowner before they can move into their new home. Those hours are important as they are the investment the family makes in their future. Partnership families literally build their own housing solution, and as such Habitat calls their work a ‘hand up’ instead of a ‘hand out.’ The North Island chapter of Habitat for Humanity started back in 2003 to address the growing need for affordable housing in the Comox Valley and Campbell River.

It’s a good thing too, as Canada is in the middle of a housing crisis. The situation in the Comox Valley is getting worse every year as rental rates go up. In fact, the 2009 Comox Valley Quality of Life Report stated that rental rates in the Comox Valley went up an overall average of 7.9 per cent from 2007 to 2008, which is more than double the rate of inflation. This rental increase puts more pressure on families that are already stressed to their financial limits.

Deb Roth is the executive director of Habitat for Humanity North Island and was one of the founding board members. As such, Roth is well aware of the need here for more affordable housing. “Habitat’s Family Selection Committee interviews families who apply for a Habitat home and have an opportunity to see firsthand the challenges that face a number of families in the Comox Valley,” she says.

“Homes that are well cared for and an appropriate size for families are often too expensive. Homes that are not well maintained are often still too expensive as well as posing risks to the health of the family. Everything from mold, leaky roofs, drafty windows and doors to dangerous wiring and poor plumbing have a huge impact on the families who live there and have little else to choose from. In our experience many families living in over-crowded substandard housing are paying over 50 per cent of their family income on housing. That does not include Hydro, insurance or phone. And that doesn’t leave much for food, clothes, transportation or school activities like field trips or sports.”

“Though Habitat is made up of many workers, the volunteers are the real heroes of our organization,” says Deb Roth at the build site.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

“Though Habitat is made up of many workers, the volunteers are the real heroes of our organization,” says Deb Roth at the build site. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Since 2003, the North Island chapter of Habitat for Humanity has built eight homes for low income families, and that goes a long way toward supporting a thriving community. Studies show that home ownership is pivotal toward breaking the cycle of poverty. In fact, when a family moves into their own home they become healthier both physically and mentally. Parents feel less stress, family members interact better with each other, kids do better in school, and their confidence improves.

Currently, Habitat for Humanity North Island is in the midst of their biggest project yet—the aforementioned six unit development at on Piercy Avenue. Of the six units, two are completed, and for two Comox Valley families, those two front doors reflect the realization of a dream they never felt they’d achieve.

Lisa Tucker, 39, and her three year old son, Luca, lived in a basement suite before they moved into their new home. “It seemed that I’d always be stuck in the rental thing,” says Tucker during an interview. “I wondered how I’d ever save up money for a down payment for a house. I yearned for a place where Luca could grow up— I yearned for a real home.”

Tucker first found out about Habitat for Humanity 18 months ago when she was approached by a friend who felt Tucker would be a good Habitat for Humanity candidate.

“I’d heard about Habitat for Humanity, but I didn’t really understand what it was all about,” recalls Tucker. “After my friend approached me I went on the Habitat website and found that I really did fit their criteria. You had to be a low income family with at least one adult and one child; you had to show that you had a good credit history and the ability to pay your monthly bills. So I filled out the 10-page application form and hoped for the best.”

Soon Tucker was interviewed by Habitat’s Family Selection Committee and two months later Tucker was told she was chosen to be one of the recipients of the next building project. “They explained the sweat equity I needed to do and my first reaction was ‘no problem’,” says Tucker with a laugh. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I still had to work 40 hours a week at my regular job, so on Saturdays friends would take Luca for me so I could work an eight hour shift at the build site. I also worked shifts at the ReStore and thankfully, friends of mine were able to donate their volunteer time to work 100 of my hours.”

Though it was a difficult task for a single mom, Tucker finished her hours in record time. “It was hard work but it was also interesting and educational,” she says. “Hey, now I know how to build a wall and hang drywall!”

Though Tucker is thankful to everyone at Habitat for Humanity she was most touched by the hard working volunteers that she saw almost every day. “This has been a life changing experience for me, but what’s impacted me the most are the countless volunteers that showed up every day to build a house for someone they didn’t even know,” Tucker says.

“When I drive down the driveway on my way to work they are already there and Luca waves at them as we drive past. I tell him ‘they built this house for you’ and I promise myself that I’ll work hard to make sure he understands beyond a shadow of a doubt that these people built this home for us because they loved us so much. That’s the least I can do to say thank you for all they’ve done for us.

“I’m so blessed,” Tucker adds. “This has been a real game changer for us. It’s given me a sense of pride and confidence that I can provide for Luca. This house is something we own together.”

Leina Braconnier, 54, is the mother of two daughters, aged 18 and 28. Her eldest daughter is away at college, but her youngest daughter just graduated from high school.

“My eldest daughter, Cassie, was already moved out but Emerald was only 11 back in 2006 when I was accepted as a Habitat candidate,” says Braconnier, who now lives in the other completed home at the Piercy Avenue site. “We were approved for a house but for different reasons we needed to wait for this one. Though it was a long wait I’m glad because this is our dream home. I wouldn’t change a single thing—this house is absolutely perfect for Emerald and me.”

For Braconnier, the biggest struggle as a single mom was providing a home that was safe and secure for her two growing daughters. “In one year we were broken into twice,” she says. “That was really hard for me because, as a single mom, I struggled to provide a safe and secure home for my two girls—a place where they could thrive. But we struggled and lived month to month—there were never any extras—how could I ever save up for a down payment on a house?”

Though the dream seemed lofty, Braconnier never lost hope that she’d someday have a home for her and her girls. “I actually went to mortgage brokers and banks to crunch numbers and see if there was any hope at all that I could get a house,” recalls Braconnier. “But the answer was always the same—I needed a down payment to get a house. There was no other way, it seemed.”

Though the wait was long, last spring Braconnier received the okay to move in. “I couldn’t believe it when I was told the house was mine to move into,” says Braconnier, with tears in her eyes. “And during the house dedication ceremony I had the strangest sensation. Though I stood in the entryway with no one around me, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I heard a voice whisper ‘It’s yours, Leina.’ That’s when it finally became real for me. I felt like dancing!”

Though the first duplex is now home to two new families, there are still four more houses at the site that need to be finished. “There is still a lot of work to be done,” says Tucker. “That’s why I still find myself there on Saturdays—because there is so much to do and it’s such a great thing to be a part of.”

Though Habitat is always looking for people to help on their build days, which are Wednesdays through Saturdays, if you’re not one to swing a hammer you can always volunteer at one of the ReStore locations.

By volunteering with Habitat for Humanity you have a chance to make real and permanent change in the lives of local, hard-working families. In fact, many volunteers say they gain as much through the process as the families with which they partner. “Though Habitat is made up of many workers, the volunteers are the real heroes of our organization,” says Deb Roth. “We couldn’t do what we do without them. And we often find that once someone volunteers for a day they often catch what we jokingly call ‘Habititus’, where they find they just can’t stay away.”

Because everything about Habitat for Humanity is based on helping others, the benefit that Habitat brings to a community is more than the sum of nails, wood and paint. It’s exponential. It’s life changing and community building. When community members rally together to help each other something shifts—and we’re seeing that shift here in the Comox Valley.

“This whole experience has shown me that this community is one that really comes together,” says Tucker. “It’s been a life changing experience for every single one of us.”


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