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Habitat for Humanity Builds More than Houses


The American dream includes owning a home. But the cost of buying and maintaining a house makes that an impossible dream for many low-income families. That's where Habitat for Humanity comes in. The non-profit Christian organization builds houses around the world with labor provided by community volunteers and the families who will eventually live in those homes.

At the Habitat for Humanity program in Nashville, Tennessee, people are learning not only how to build their own homes, but the skills they need to be successful homeowners.

Kim Bradley is a professional gardener. As the first blooms of spring began to appear, she started teaching dozens of prospective owners of Habitat for Humanity houses how to take care of their yards, from growing flowers, shrubs and young trees to cutting the grass and watering plants. "I think that the people in the class agree that the outside of your home is an extension of who you are." Ms. Bradley says. "It's very important for me for my yard to look good so that the chaos of the world when you come home is gone. Also, it's a welcoming mat for your friends and your family. It brightens your neighbors' day."

She says growing flowers may not seem like a basic skill of homeownership, but it is no less important than being able to fix a leaky faucet. "They are on a very tight budget'" she says. "So we're really trying to show them ways that they can do things where they don't have to do a lot of purchases, where they can maintain what they have."

Ms. Bradley usually takes her students outdoors for a hands-on experience in transplanting seedlings and starting new cuttings.

Angie Loflin, a vice-president at Nashville Habitat for Humanity, says landscaping is one of the new classes recently added to their regular training programs.

"Originally, we began offering basic homeowner classes: what does mortgage consist of? What is homeowner insurance?" she says. "Then, we realized that owning a home was about much more. There were home maintenance issues that would arise. So, if we could teach them basic skills beyond just basic home ownership, then, we'd be empowering them to further improve their lives beyond just owning their own home."

The new classes cover a wide range of issues, from house repair and gardening to tips on life-changing job skills and avoiding identity theft. Nashville Habitat spokeswoman Ashley Webster says first time homeowners seem excited about them. "They are very responsive because they know that they are starting on a journey that's going to be for the rest of their lives," she says. "They're going to make changes in their behavior and that will create changes in their children's behavior. They are eager to learn because they really want to be successful."

Those who signed up for the landscaping workshop say it's a good chance to meet their future neighbors and get their hands dirty.

Attending such workshops also counts toward the hours of labor that prospective homeowners must invest in order to qualify for a Habitat home. Angie Loflin calls it sweat equity. "They have to earn between 300 and 450 hours of 'sweat equity,'" she says. "Part of that is on the build site on their own homes, part of that is on others' homes, which immediately builds a sense of community. Because it isn't just a selfish endeavor, but they're working on those homes of their neighbors who they will be part of the community within the long term."

New homeowners say the Habitat classes help them help themselves. This process teaches them a very basic lesson: if they can build their dream home - they can also change their lives.