A home of our own. This is the American Dream and the fervent hope of thousands of struggling families. Achieving this dream can change the lives of children and help them to grow up to be stronger more productive citizens. It can change everything. But for far too many, that is all it is—a dream. Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976 to help change this, and has grown into a beloved international organization.
Habitat for Humanity of Taos is our local branch and has been operational since 1993. The ReStore was opened in 1997. They have built 30 homes, and are on the 31st. They have also rehabbed 26 owner occupied homes. One thing that makes Taos different is that it is the only local branch that builds with adobe in keeping with our traditions and style.
There are many working parts to the program, and thousands of people are involved in the process of building each home, most of them volunteers. There is a complex vetting system for choosing candidates for the homes. These families are called Home Buying Partners because that is how the system works. The families must pay for the home through a very specific process, and also help build it. Because of the extremely labor intensive nature of this process, and the need for volunteers, there is usually only one home built per year in Taos, though there will be two in 2017.
The Home Buying Partners
Each family must attend an orientation and fill out a detailed application, covering many things from degree of need to ability to repay. These orientations are held about every 14 months, though there is no set schedule. Many come but few qualify the first time around. As Cynthia Arvidson, the Executive Director of Habitat For Humanity Taos told us “The biggest challenge getting folks into homes is finding people that qualify and are willing to go through the application process. We let them know the issues, encourage them to work on it and even take one of our classes and reapply again when we have the next Orientation.”
The Habitat Homes
The homes are built by the future owners and by volunteers. There is a licensed contractor in charge at every build. The houses are built to be safe and comfortable but modest. There are square foot guidelines based on the number of occupants, as well as guidelines for the number of bedrooms. As houses have gotten bigger and bigger many of us have forgotten how to have a reasonable footprint. Habitat houses are a godsend to the people that live in them, but they are not McMansions. Nor should they be.
According to Arvidson, the size of the home is based on the size of the family and the genders of the children. “If we had a family with four children, two boys and two girls, it would be a three bedroom. One bedroom for the parent(s), one for both boys and one for both girls. If we had a family of 1 boy and 1 girl, it would also be a 3 bedroom because we cannot legally have a boy and girl sharing a room.”
Habitat volunteers come from all walks of life and from all over the world. Many are church or college groups, or even high-schoolers. You must be 16 or older to volunteer and there is a fee. These fees are one of the biggest sources of revenue for Habitat.
One of the biggest myths about Habitat for Humanity Taos is that the international organization funds its work. In reality, the money flows the other way, in the form of a tithe. The local gets its funds from community events, the Restore, and from volunteer fees.
Habitat for Humanity is a win-win all the way around. But it isn’t just the build volunteers and the house recipients that get all the satisfaction for a job well done. The staff at our local office get what might even be called a spiritual lift in working with the families getting homes and the volunteers who help. When I asked what was the most rewarding thing about her job Arvidson told me the following: “Most rewarding thing is twofold: First, meeting the visiting work groups (volunteers that come from out of town-usually out of state) that pay to come here to work and their responses at the end of the week on what it meant to them to meet the partner family and the work they were able to do to help get them in that home. Second, the way the home buying partners grow when meeting all of these volunteers (usually over a thousand people by the time their home is complete) and working with our staff. They speak to every group that comes to work and thank the workers and tell them a bit about their story and what this opportunity means to them; seeing them blossom and become more comfortable speaking to large groups and one on one, their confidence is built and their eyes for humanity are changed in a beautiful way. It’s priceless.”
As she says, most of the newly minted homeowners get much more than a new home. They get a sense of confidence and pride they may never have experienced before. It changes their lives in many more ways than just the shelter, as precious as that is in itself.