AmeriCorps Reflection: Importance of Listening

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A reflection by AmeriCorps VISTA member Krysta Osweiler, who works in Homeowner Services.

“The more I’ve had the opportunity to speak with different members of the community (over 200 individuals in just one quarter!), the more I’ve seen the ways that the entire issue of affordable housing affects far more people than I ever thought it would. I came into my VISTA role knowing that there was a huge need, but as I’ve spent time talking with different community members, and really listening to their stories, I’ve seen many of the ways that housing can, and often does, divide people. Almost into the “haves” and “have not’s”.  For some, renting is a way of life. For others, it’s all they can afford. For even more, they haven’t once considered that there may be another option.

Each of my grandparents owned their homes, and my parents have owned a home since I was baby. I have never once considered that homeownership might be out of reach for me. But that’s not how it is for everyone, and depending on where you live, monthly mortgage payments could cost far more than rent would. Up until now, I’ve really seen the question of homeownership as being purely a matter of finances, without fully appreciating that there can often be a whole lot more at play in the decision than just money.

One of my most meaningful experiences was completely unexpected. I reached out to our local community college, wondering how I could best connect with their ESL students. Imagine my surprise when the response was an invitation to speak with their English conversation class! There were 9 class members on the day of my visit, each with varying levels of English proficiency. The facilitator had prepared a list of questions to discuss, specifically focused on housing, and it was pretty eye-opening to hear their responses. Some were interested in a house, but only after having children, once they’d really “need” the extra space. Others lived with extended family, and desperately wanted to be in a place of their own; but their cultures were the kind where multiple generations lived together, and not having other family members in the home would never be an option for them. One came from a city where literally no one could afford to buy a home of their own, so until this conversation, it had never once crossed his mind that people might do that.

Housing and “home” is something we all see very differently, depending on where we came from and what our point of reference is. I knew that if you always rented, and your parents always rented, and your grandparents always rented, that you probably wouldn’t recognize homeownership as an option for you. But I didn’t fully appreciate the ways that your culture could play into that, or how it can even go so far as to dictate your housing choices for you. Many of these international students had always lived with extended family, and really wanted to enjoy their apartments here, and the space to themselves. One even said that as long as they were in a small apartment, no one else would come live with them, but if they had a house, other family members would definitely be living there, too. That completely took away any motivation for them to purchase a house down the road. When my husband and I first bought a house, that wasn’t even part of what we considered. We wanted to have space for our family members to be able to visit. But for these students, having that space would mean something completely different. It wouldn’t have been space for visitors, it would have been space for long-term guests that wouldn’t necessarily leave.

These conversations have been an important part of sharing information about Habitat with our community. They’ve also been important as a way to educate people on both sides of the table. Not only did these students need to hear that homeownership is a possibility, I needed to hear what shaped their thoughts on the process. We each have a unique perspective, and every single one of those perspectives is valid. Until we really listen to the people on the “other” side of the table, we won’t be able to recognize how different our thoughts might be. Much of my time has been spent educating the community at-large about Habitat and the services we provide. In doing so, I’ve learned from community members themselves, and for that, I am grateful.”

Exactly where I want to be

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A reflection by Chris Nolan, an AmeriCorps member who works on the Home Repair team.

“Here at Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, the first half of my year of service has felt like coming home to a place I’ve never been. In my first job out of college, I worked on a farm whose customer base was primarily people of considerable privilege, I loved the work I was doing and the people I worked

with, but felt that overall what I was doing was lacking in impact and mission. Since leaving my home state I have been looking for that community and satisfaction from a hard day’s work that I felt on the farm, and after a few years of searching ended up where I am now. Here on the Home Repair team, the

work we do every day has a visible, tangible, and sometimes emotional impact on some of the most underserved and unseen members of our community. In this role I have begun to learn exactly the sort of skills I need, from framing to finishing and everything along the way. I am starting to see a house as not

just a big box but a structure with layers, shedding water, bearing weight. And I have gotten to hear stories and perspectives from homeowners whose existence I would otherwise be entirely ignorant of. In Home Repair our experiences with homeowners can range wildly. Take for instance: after completing one project, I learned that one of the home residents had died the following weekend. At another project, the conditions in which the homeowner was living before our repair had me saddened and upset through dinnertime. At another, the homeowner baked us fresh cookies, played Vivaldi while we worked, and every day offered us oranges, local apples, or baked sweet potato wedges while telling us stories from her life which spanned from coast to coast, with multiple careers and degrees along the way; at yet another, the elderly homeowner was more than eager to pick up a shovel and help us move hundreds of pounds of gravel. What we see here is real, what we learn is real, and what we do is real. And it is exactly where I want to be and what I want to be doing. So to Habitat and AmeriCorps, I say thank you for the chance to be right here.”

Want to hear from other AmeriCorps members who have worked with us in the past? Watch this video.

Interested in serving as an AmeriCorps member with us starting in August 2020? We will be seeking 7 members: 4 in Construction, 1 in Family Services and 2 in volunteer services. Stay tuned for job descriptions coming to the website soon. In the meantime, feel free to contact Sheila to express interest.

 

Habitat Epitomizes Margaret Mead’s Theory

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By Ariane Kjellquist

My Anthropology degree and seemingly-unrelated career as a non-profit marketing professional intersect in this quote by American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The innovative idea of “partnership housing” developed in the mid 1970’s by farmer Clarence Jordan and eventual Habitat for Humanity founders Millard & Linda Fuller, epitomizes Mead’s theory. The concept conceived by a small group of people with a shared vision took root and 29 million people have since achieved strength, stability and independence through safe, decent and affordable shelter. Habitat for Humanity has undoubtedly changed the world.

Right here in our own community, Asheville Area Habitat has helped some 1,700 adults and children improve their housing and build a better future since our inception in 1983. In fact, today (February 11, 2020) marks our 37th Anniversary! We were the first Habitat affiliate in North Carolina; today there are more than 60.

So when the world’s problems seem too overwhelming, when you think four hours of volunteer service or a $10 donation, isn’t enough, think again. A few thoughtful, committed citizens created Habitat for Humanity on Koinonia Farm outside of Americus, Georgia more than four decades ago. In 1983, a small group founded Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity (named WNC Habitat for Humanity at the time). The photo above is our original Board of Directors! ALL OF YOU – our Asheville Habitat volunteers, donors, sponsor, advocates, and ReStore supporters – are what keep changing the world for the better. Thank you and Happy Anniversary y’all!

If you’ve been on a hiatus and would like to engage with us again, or perhaps for the first time, please click here to learn how you can help.

Every Bit Counts

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By Beth Russo

Let me introduce you to one of our newest supporters – Clara.

Clara recently turned 3 and her parents threw her a birthday party. The theme was Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Rather than getting presents, her parents thought that making donations to Asheville Habitat was a good way to give back to their own neighborhood and community, while celebrating her birthday.

Her dad said, “It’s not a whole lot, but every bit counts”. He couldn’t be more right.

Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity can build new, affordable homes for community members, and repair the homes of low income neighbors because of our community’s support – and every bit does count! We rely on the kindness of our donors, volunteers, and sponsors to solve the affordable housing crisis, one home at a time. All of the “bits” – time, money and advocacy efforts are critical to serving the families who need affordable, safe and decent housing solutions.

So Happy Birthday Clara! Thank you for being our newest – and youngest – supporter. Thank you to your parents for making sure that Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood will be building a real neighborhood, right here in our own backyard.

P.S. – Mike, her dad, works at BuildFax, one of our many Blueprint Sponsors. Seeing first-hand how Habitat helps families build strength, stability and self-reliance, Mike was inspired to impart his philanthropic mindset to his young daughter. And he found a creative way to do it! 

Businesses Step Up to Support Affordable Housing

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By Beth Russo

“Giving is not just about making a donation. It is about making a difference.” ~ Kathy Calvin

We love working with our business community. Seeing our local businesses – both the large ones with multiple worldwide locations and the small ones located in downtown Asheville– step up to be part of the housing solution in our community brings us great joy.

Local businesses know that our entire community is stronger when residents – and employees – have decent and affordable housing. We see this throughout the year at Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, but never more so than when building the Business Bungalow house.

Our 5th Business Bungalow, built in partnership with our local businesses, is currently under construction in our Candler community, Curry Court. The future homeowner, Belinda, will be unlocking her front door before summer begins.

Belinda has worked for Mission Hospital since 1999, and has been raising her son in a 1-bedroom apartment as a single mother. Like many people in our community, she got creative and Belinda turned a converted carport into a makeshift second bedroom, using a sheet for a door. This apartment had one other undesirable feature –a $400 plus heating cost during the winter months.

A sheet is not a door, and Belinda needs a permanently affordable option. She’s grateful to the businesses who agree – and are investing in her future home through sponsorships.

Our business community sees the benefits of providing funds – and volunteers – to support this work. Companies use this partnership to create meaningful employee engagement, to get team members to know each other outside of the office – and to be part of the larger community effort addressing a real local problem.

The financial support that local businesses provide – whether as a Housing Champion, Blueprint Sponsor or at a higher level – helps make Habitat homes affordable. Every dollar adds up to an affordable Green Built home that Belinda will purchase, with a monthly mortgage (and energy cost), that fits her budget. Asheville Habitat is proud to collaborate with our business community to make affordable homeownership within reach for more local families.

If you are interested in joining this diverse group of businesses, please contact me (Beth Russo) at brusso@ashevillehabitat.org for more information. Thank you!

Nonprofit Collaboration Offers a Fresh Perspective on Volunteering

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By Klesa Ausherman

The social justice arena can be an intimidating one to enter. The intricacies of policy can feel out of our grasp, and the feeling that the battle is always fought up-hill can be a deterrent to rolling up our sleeves and joining the effort. These apprehensions are more easily overcome when we hear the experiences and perspectives of a long-time social justice veteran; someone like Cassie Dillon.

Cassie is the current Asheville Habitat Board Chair, member of numerous Habitat committees, Asheville ReStore core volunteer – and Buncombe County Guardian Ad Litem. Her connection and commitment to both organizations has created the opportunity for some beautiful collaborations. The first is the 1821 ReStore Shopper Program, which you can read about here. And the most recent is the Guardian Ad Litem Association’s Children’s Assistance Fund, the recipient of this month’s ReStore Register Round Up program. We sat down with Cassie to learn a little more about the Guardian Ad Litem Association, their Children’s Assistance Fund, and her volunteer work over the years.

Cassie has been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity for 16 years- long before her retirement from a career in Computer Information Systems. She began with AAHH because it was the only place she could volunteer on Saturdays. Six years ago, she completed a six-week course and received a court appointment as a Buncombe County Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). Since then, she has represented 21 children in Department of Social Services non-secure custody in court. Her  responsibility is to speak for, and in the best interest of children who are receiving DSS in-home, kinship or foster care services.

Five years ago several GALs joined forces to create the Guardian Ad Litem Association of Buncombe County to  provide enrichment activities for children they serve through the Children’s Assistance Fund. This volunteer-funded initiative provides activities such as summer camp and piano lessons to children who otherwise would not be able to afford them. This summer, two young adults who attended the YMCA’s Camp Watai as counselors in training under GAL auspices will become full-fledged summer camp counselors – a positive and life-changing experience for  kids who have spent a good deal of their lives in foster care.

As a Guardian Ad Litem, Cassie does research on her families, writes reports to support her recommendations,  attends court hearings, and visits the children and families she serves at least 1-2 times each month. She admits this type of volunteering can sometimes be emotional and difficult, but also very rewarding. “Volunteering is very enriching,” she says. “If your focus is just economic, that’s a pretty narrow focus. I would encourage people to have a broader focus, and volunteering certainly fulfills that. It keeps you grounded and makes you want to be more aware of the impact of policies on people lives because you see firsthand what these policies do and how devastating they can be.”

Through volunteering with these organizations Cassie has become closely acquainted with our social systems, and comments “It’s so clear that our social safety net has a lot of holes in it. When people make minimum wage and are living in miserable conditions, it’s just a really hard life. Things happen, but I have yet to meet a family where I felt the parents were bad people.” When asked how she remains encouraged and stays committed despite the circumstances that she regularly witnesses, she replied “I had a really  disturbing case with child abuse that actually ended well. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody screws up. I think that’s the other thing you learn- humanity is very flawed, so just expect it and don’t be judgmental.”

This could perhaps be one of the most encouraging statements ever made about volunteering with social justice organizations: through volunteering, we can be witness to the resolutions, to all of the positive outcomes, rather than just the negative statistics describing human error in the world around us. We don’t have to ring our hands and pull out our hair because of the constant bombardment of negative news and statistics; we can be present, part of the solutions and good outcomes by volunteering with our local community social justice organizations. Turns out, volunteering is as important for our health as our daily multi-vitamin and serving of greens. Thank you Cassie, for this awesome revelation! (That must be your secret to beauty as well!)

A good resource on our local social justice organizations is the WNC Social Justice Advocacy Guide found at:  https://wncsocialjustice.guide/. Ask yourself, “If I could serve one cause and do some good before my time on this planet is up, what would it be?”  Then, go see who’s already out there working and link arms!

The January ReStore Register Round Up proceeds will benefit the Guardian Ad Litem Association’s Children’s Assistance Fund. Learn more about GAL at https://gala-bc.org/.

 

 

New Partnership to Meet Senior Housing Needs

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Though older adults (age 55+) comprise 20% of Buncombe County’s population, they have limited access to affordable housing options designed to meet their needs. Coordinator for Buncombe County Aging Plan Alison H. Climo shared, “Neither the current housing stock nor the booming development of new housing matches the expressed desire among older and aging residents to age in place. Buncombe County needs housing options that are affordable but also accessible to enable people of all ages, and all people as they age, to remain in the home of their choice.”

To that end, in the first phase of construction at its upcoming New Heights neighborhood (off of Old Haywood Road), Habitat will build 8 single-level townhomes specifically for aging adults, thanks to generous support from local retirement community, Deerfield. Funding from Deerfield and its newly formed Charitable Foundation includes a Full House Sponsorship ($55,000) on each of the 8 units, as well as $50,000 to research and develop senior-oriented house designs, financing options and HOA management.

“The ability to age with safety and dignity and to live in an age-friendly community shouldn’t be an option reserved for the wealthy. Everyone deserves to live in a stable, affordable home – in all stages of life. We are incredible grateful for Deerfield’s partnership in this important work of ensuring more of our aging neighbors have a safe, affordable home,” said Andy Barnett, Asheville Habitat’s Executive Director.

Specifically designed for and sold to qualified older adults, Habitat’s senior housing will include universal design elements such as:

  • An at-grade or ramped entrance to the main floor or the capability to easily install a ramp
  • Entry doorways and passageways at least 36″ wide
  • A bathroom that will accommodate a wheelchair in a 365-degree circle
  • One-level living that includes a full bath, kitchen, laundry, living space and 1+ bedroom
  • Additional occupant-specific accommodations

 

Site of New Heights as of Dec. 2019.

Like all Habitat homeowners, senior homebuyers will repay an affordable mortgage. To help identify potential homebuyers, Asheville Habitat will leverage existing relationships with Council of Aging, Land of Sky Regional Council and other agencies.

“We are so glad to be able to support affordable housing for seniors in Buncombe County. Deerfield residents have communicated their passion and support for Habitat in such practical ways over the years – consistent volunteerism and generous donations! We listened and are affirming their commitment to Asheville Habitat by investing nearly half a million dollars in the organization’s good work,” remarked Michelle Wooley, Director of Philanthropy at Deerfield.

To learn more about Habitat homeownership (senior housing or traditional single-family and townhome models) here or call 828.210.9362. Information sessions are held multiple times each month and the schedule of upcoming dates can be found on the website.

Volunteer Team Makes Big Single-Day Impact

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By Ariane Kjellquist, with contributions from Sydney Monshaw

Like most of our Home repair clients, Ms. Priscilla McDowell is an aging adult in need of home improvements that improve access and safety. Our Home Repair team recently tackled the job of completely rebuilding two large, crumbling and unsafe porches at Ms. McDowell’s home. This included removing the existing structures and building a smaller deck and landing with less steep stairs. Thanks to a crew of four volunteers from Beach Hensley Homes, the project was completed ahead of schedule. “I was planning to spend at least a week at this job,” shared Project Supervisor Sydney Monshaw. “With Beach Hensley’s help we were able to complete this project in just three days!”

Their volunteers arrived on Wednesday to the old decks already removed and footers for the new one ready to go. In the first hour, the deck was framed and the posts were set. By lunch break everything had decking, the stairs were hung, and handrails had been started. By the time the Beach Hensley crew left at 4:45pm (staying later than needed because they wanted to get it done) they had the entire porch completed, with the exception of one stair tread and three kick plates. And that work was only outstanding because they ran out of materials! With just a handful of very small things to finish the following day, this 5-day job was done in just 2 ½ days!

It’s not surprising that a team of professional contractors work more quickly and efficiently than a staff supervisor and a few volunteers with less or no construction experience. Habitat is used to working with volunteers that run the gamut from never having used a saw to trade professionals that could do the work in their sleep. But this crew brought added-value in the form of knowledge sharing. They took a minute here and there to explain why they were making certain choices. Sydney said, “As the supervisor of this jobsite, I am grateful for their efficiency, skill, and knowledge. As a member of the greater Asheville community, I am grateful for their generosity and willingness to give back. Ms. McDowell is not only safer because of them, she’s also proud and excited about her new back porch.”

Home Repair for low-income homeowners is a significant and growing community need. The population of aging adults in Buncombe County continues to grow, and one of the best ways to help residents live with more safety, security and dignity as they age, is to help them remain in the homes they already own. To try to keep up with demand, we have grown our repair program by adding a second supervisor and a second work van, and we continue to utilize three AmeriCorps members. We increased our goal mid-year from 60 to 70 jobs. Additionally, we manage “Aging in Place”, a sort of program-within-a-program, that serves clients that come to us through a partnership with The Council on Aging. And this year, we did a community project with Poder Emma, in which we served 25 families in one day, and trained community members to serve another 75 with security and safety upgrades.

As you can see, being able to complete a project in half the time is a substantial win for a program with aggressive goals and a team stretched thin. If your business of trade professionals can spare just one day to volunteer on a Habitat Home Repair project, we would LOVE to have you! Asheville Habitat has committed to serving another 1,000 families within 10 years and 600 will be through Home Repair. Be part of our success story! To learn more, call 828.210-9383 or email swallace@ashevillehabitat.org.