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.”

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.

Innovative Solution to Community Need

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Members of PODER EMMA and staff from Asheville Habitat’s Home Repair team came together to protect manufactured home residents and build community by having a community safety day to install new door security plates and solar-powered, motion-activated lighting.