The National Mall in Washington DC is the site of the soaring Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other icons of American life. But over the past week, the Mall also became a symbol of humanitarian aid.
From first light to sunset, the crystal clear fall air was filled with the sounds of hammering as volunteers from every state and the District of Columbia gathered on "America's Front Lawn" to build house frames. All 51 completed will be shipped on trucks to the U.S. Gulf Coast for the benefit of families whose previous homes were destroyed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"We're not just building homes. We're building lives, we're building communities, we're building a future," said Joedy Isert, a spokesman for Habitat for Humanity International, the Georgia-based organization that sponsored the weeklong event. He said these 51 structures will be a mere fraction of the over 200,000 homes built by volunteers in over 2,000 local grassroots chapters of Habitat for Humanity over 30 years.
"We have people coming for no other reason than they care. They have jobs. They have lives. They have things to do," he explained, "but they are out here driving nails and lifting wood, and moving things about, building homes for families they will probably never ever meet, in communities they may never ever visit. Yet they care enough to do something permanent for someone else." Working on these homes is a profound experience, he said "…because they realize this in two weeks, six weeks, ten weeks, someone is going to be living in that house and they will have helped to change a life."
That view was echoed by Bill Johnson, a five-year veteran volunteer with the Sarasota Florida chapter of Habitat for Humanity. He was just one of over 1,500 volunteers who appeared to be having a great time working on this week's goal: one completed house from each state delegation to a dispossessed family on the Gulf Coast.
"For many years, I gave my dollars," recalled Mr. Johnson, "the dollars was the easy part. I wanted to do something more. So when I retired from working I decided what can I do to keep myself busy and out of my wife's hair, and found Habitat in Sarasota Florida."
Mr. Johnson said that he's been blessed all his life. "Now it's my chance to give back to the community and it's something I love doing." Claiming he has never met anyone at Habitat that wasn't fun to work with, he added, with a grin, "That's a blessing in itself."
According to Chris Clarke, Habitat for Humanity's Director of Communications, a home is more than a house. It's a place where families can flourish. "We think the house or a home is central to a family's success. It gives them a stable environment. It gives them a safe environment. It gives them a place where they and their family can foster and grow into more opportunities," he said
Mr. Clarke emphasized that Habitat for Humanity is not a traditional charity, where "those who have" simply give to "those who have not." There are three strict criteria any family has to meet before qualifying for a home. The first is, of course, need.
"They have to either be living in a place they cant afford or in circumstances that are dire, where they don't have running water, where the wind blows through the house - something that is not appropriate for a family to live in and be successful in…."
Second, said Mr. Clarke, new homeowners must become true partners with Habitat for Humanity. That means putting in 330 to 500 hours of their own labor, building their own home and helping others. "We call that 'sweat equity,'" he explained, "and it's their investment or their down payment in home ownership, and it forms a bond between them and the house."
Prospective Habitat homeowners must also be able to pay a no-interest, no-profit mortgage. "Because Habitat for Humanity is not a hand-out. It's a hand up," Mr. Clarke said, "and through investing their hours, and in modest house payments, they are investing in their future."
As Habitat for Humanity has expanded from the U.S. into almost 100 other countries, it has maintained its grassroots community orientation. Everything from the use of local building materials to home design to the traditional house blessing at the end of each project is done with respect for local culture and tradition.
It also takes local realities into account. After last year's Asian tsunami, for example, many fishermen lost their means of livelihood. But, while working with Habitat for Humanity, many of them learned masonry and other construction skills that helped them begin life anew - at home.