A helping hand for humanity

Those who volunteer with Habitat for Humanity have the opportunity to give deserving families a chance at the American dream of owning their own home.

USF is in the process of redeveloping an existing chapter of Habitat for Humanity, making this volunteer organization easier for students to access.

“A month or so we’ve been talking about (starting a USF chapter of Habitat),” said Mimi Ghosh, an psychology and anthropology double major who is the co-founder of USF’s chapter of Habitat. “We didn’t realize that USF already had a chapter; we were preparing to start a chapter from the ground up.

“The USF chapter is an offshoot of the Hillsborough County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International,” Ghosh said.

“From our end, what that USF chapter will be able to do is to lead USF students out to our builds and help build,” said Clinton Mueller, volunteer coordinator for the Hillsborough County HFH. In the future, Ghosh has hopes “to see (the USF chapter) grow to as many volunteering people as possible. We would like to be internationally recognized so we can attract even more people throughout our campus and our city.”

What Habitat does for families is give them a hand up, not a hand out, as the organization calls it. The family has to go through a qualification process, including a credit check and putting in 500 volunteer hours as a family on different builds, including their house and other houses.

“There are three qualifications,” said Roger Girson, interim director of Hillsborough County HFH. “First is ability to pay. They have to have enough income to be able to make that house payment. Second qualification is there has to be a definite housing need, like living in a high-crime area, living in a building where there are safety issues. Third qualification is the willingness to partner, which is the sweat equity.

“(Sweat equity is) laboring on the construction sites of other houses we’re building, and then (the families help to) build their own (house),” he said. “Once the house is finished, and they have all their hours in, we sell it to them below market and with no interest rate. The payments, including property taxes, insurance and principal, are under $400.”

Girson, who was a Habitat volunteer for 15 years before becoming interim director, knows the joy that comes from finishing a house and finally presenting it to the family.

“We have a dedication ceremony for every house. They’re emotional ceremonies,” Girson said. “We’re giving this family who, before Habitat, had no hope of owning their own home and now they do. It’s a great way for volunteers to see the results of the work they’ve done.”

An important part of becoming a Habitat volunteer is attending orientation. It teaches volunteers how Habitat was established and informs them of guidelines that need to be followed. Orientations are held every Saturday at the Hillsborough County HFH, and other orientation sessions will be held on campus by the chapter and announced at a later date. Volunteers through the USF chapter cannot attend the monthly chapter meetings until they attend orientation.

The need to keep in touch with volunteers is also another purpose for orientation, Mueller said.

“(The volunteers) fill out a registration (form). They are entered into our database, and they are sent e-mails as of now.

“Soon everything will be Web-based and volunteers can log in to our Web site and R.S.V.P. for (information on) builds,” he said.

After going through the orientation, Ghosh said, “It’s just (a matter of) volunteering (at the various builds). Any work you can do is appreciated.”

Disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, reveal the need for non-profit organizations like HFH International and its local affiliates. In this time of need, HFH International is reaching out to those left homeless from the hurricane with its program “Operation Home Delivery.”

“The plan focuses first on helping Habitat affiliates that were hardest hit by Katrina restore some level of service,” said a press release on . “Then Habitat will seek to serve as a catalyst with other organizations, governments, corporations, foundations, etc., to bring people together to talk about low-income housing and recovery on a scale that Habitat alone would be unable to do, and third, to establish and implement a ‘home-in-a-box project.'”

The “home-in-a-box project” is where the local affiliates would come in and be able to help with the rebuilding effort in the aftermath of Katrina.

“This program holds the greatest potential for help and hope and better provides help and volunteer opportunities for people in communities all across America to have a role in rebuilding,” said Nevil Eastwood, director of programs for Habitat, in the press release on .

The Hillsborough County HFH will do their part in Habitat International’s recovery effort.

“What we’re going to do is take part in the rebuild program, which will probably start in November, and replace the homes that were demolished,” Girson said. “We’ll take one or two staff members and probably a bunch of volunteers and help them build homes and hope that they’re strong enough to withstand the next Hurricane Katrina.”

Ghosh said that starting this USF chapter is important because it can educate student volunteers about the value of hard work.

“When most people think of non-profit, they think we’re giving things away. But these families are required to do the work,” Ghosh said. “We think that teaches the value of self-discipline, and we think that’s important for people our age to learn.”

“This is for hard-working people in the community who want to get out of government housing,” said Mueller. “If someone is willing to work towards the American dream of owning a house,” then Habitat can be there to help them and give them the hand up, not a hand out.

For more information, call Clinton Mueller, volunteer coordinator for the Hillsborough County HFH, at 239-2242, or e-mail Mimi Ghosh, co-founder of Habitat’s USF chapter, at .