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Bernie Koesters: Making an Impact Locally and Globally

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By Ariane Kjellquist

From rehabbing a 100+ year old house in Portugal and installing smokeless stoves in Guatemala, to teaching woodworking to “street kids” in Bolivia and building Habitat homes here in Asheville, Bernie Koesters (pictured above with his wife Sue) is driven by the belief that “we need to give back, especially those of us that have more. We have an obligation to give back.”

Sue shares the same sentiment. She went back to school to get a nursing degree with the desire to work in under-served rural communities. It was that desire that took the couple to Bolivia for a 7-month stint. In addition to teaching street kids there woodworking skills, Bernie designed and built safety guards for existing equipment and helped refurbish used tools purchased with a grant.

When you hear Bernie talk about the work he does with Habitat and other non-profits, you might assume, as I did, that he is a retired engineer. Many Habitat volunteers are. Instead, his upbringing is what taught this retired CPA the skills he uses to give back. Raised one of seven on a farm in Ohio, he and his siblings learned to repair and rebuild farm equipment in the off-season. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we needed to make things last.”

A seasoned Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip participant (in fact, he and Sue were just in Guatemala this month), Bernie has seen first-hand the impact that safe, decent and affordable housing has on families globally and locally.

“What I saw making the biggest impact on families in Guatemala was water filters and smokeless stoves. The stoves free families from respiratory illness and they see a healthier future for themselves and their kids.”

Habitat for Humanity Guatemala reports that 52% of Guatemalans have respiratory illness and 95% of water is contaminated. Asheville Habitat staffer and Global Village trip leader Joel Johnson added, “The cost of a smokeless stove is only $100 USD, but it will change the lives of Guatemalan women and children dramatically. Most have severe respiratory illness because they are not cooking or heating with proper ventilation.” A water filter costs a mere $35, makes water potable and significantly reduces water-borne illness.

Excited by the prospect of a healthier future and per the Habitat model, Guatemalan homeowners contribute “sweat equity”. This primarily happens before out-of-town work teams arrive. Using pre-made forms, families press adobe blocks that the volunteers later use to build smokeless stoves.

team at dinner in guatemala

“I really enjoy meeting people and realizing that no matter where you are, others are just like us– just trying to make it, day in and day out. Everyone is just trying to move to a level that is about more than just surviving; into a different position of living.”

Bernie also mentioned another highlight: lunch with the mothers and children (fathers are usually off working). “Language never seems to be a barrier. A lot can be communicated with hand signals, a friendly face or a smile.”

DYK? Asheville Habitat has been “following our tithe” to Guatemala for many years now and we are one of 77 Habitat affiliates engaged in the Global Village program.

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Those Who Share Their Time and Talent

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Volunteers support Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity staff and homeowner families in every aspect of their work. Last year, 2,000 volunteers contributed more than 60,000 hours of service – at a value of more than $1.38 million, according to independentsector.org. Another way to look at it: the hours contributed by volunteers equates to having an additional 28 staff members working 40 hours each week!

Volunteers have been receiving notes, small gifts and special treats through out the week, as well as free lunch. Local SUBWAY® restaurant owners are again saluting approximately 2,000 Habitat for Humanity volunteers by providing boxed lunches at Habitat work sites in Asheville and across the Carolinas.

And there is no better time than this week to mention milestones. Two core volunteers, Joe Kane (ReStore) and Bob Swartz (Construction) have reached the 15 year milestone; Core construction volunteer Bill Kantonen, known as “singing Bill”, is celebrating 20 years as a volunteer with Asheville Area Habitat; and ReStore volunteers Jan Wright and Allen Laws have been volunteering for 25 years! Habitat is grateful for the commitment of these folks, and of all volunteers, whether they have helped once, or they help once a week.

Some fun facts about Habitat volunteers:

  • In 2015, through programs such as Global Village and Collegiate Challenge as well as the signature “Before the Jam, Lend a Hand” volunteer event, Asheville Area Habitat hosted volunteers from 31 different U.S. states!
  • Habitat utilizes about 135 volunteers in the ReStore each week.
  • It takes 1,650 hours of volunteer labor to build one Habitat house.
  • Core construction volunteers (those who volunteer on a weekly or bi-weekly basis) contributed 68% of total construction volunteer hours in 2015!

And if this isn’t enough, hear what our 12 month intern Emily Stevens has to say about Habitat and volunteerism in this short video clip.

Want to get involved? Please click here to learn more about volunteering and how to sign up. Thanks!

 

 

 

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Volunteers From all Over the Country Unite in Asheville

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During the week of April 11-15, 14 individuals packed their bags with work clothes and boots and traveled to Asheville to build houses for families whom they had never met. While tourism in Asheville is growing, the city is also quickly becoming a hot volunteer destination. After four weeks of hosting Collegiate Challenge trips (think alternative spring break for students), Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity hosted an impressive Habitat for Humanity Global Village Team. Get ready to be inspired; this volunteer team was stacked! Some participants built in memory of a loved one, others came to bond with family members, and all of them are were here to do good. While they hailed from Florida, Wisconsin, New York, and other states, many of them have spent much of their lives living abroad.

Global Village is a program through Habitat for Humanity International that provides volunteers from all over the country and the world the opportunity to make a difference in another community. As timing is everything, this team couldn’t have planned it any better. Not only did they experience the “usual” agenda items of working on the construction site, having dinner with a Habitat partner family, and getting to do some sightseeing, but they were also able to attend a Habitat house “kickoff” event and we held a Habitat home dedication two days later. Did we mention that they were also here during National Volunteer Appreciation Week?

This Global Village trip was organized and led by local Habitat core volunteer, Charlie Franck. He and his wife Tricia spent their careers in education working in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Kenya and Egypt. They have participated in and led many Global Village Trips over the years, where they met many of the people who were on this team. One friend and participant, who had heard stories about the Franck’s Global Village Trips for years wrote, “This is my opportunity to experience the thrill and challenge of giving back.” He had waited 30 years to participate in a Global Village Trip, and finally had a chance to do so.

A few more interesting facts about the team members:

  • They have participated in a combined 55 Global Village trips and six Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Projects!
  • There were four families participating together on this trip.
  • One participant has run in seven marathons, including three NYC Marathons.
  • One participant serves on the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County, PA and another serves on a Board committee for HFH of Philadelphia’s ReStore.
  • One participant is on staff at Habitat for Humanity Twin Cities.
  • One woman is an Oncologist at the University of Wisconsin, and one man is a student at the New School in New York studying Culture and Media.

We are so grateful for Charlie for bringing this great team to Asheville! Click here to view pictures of the team on our Hudson Hills jobsite.

 

Jobsites Heat up for March Madness

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March Madness is here, but for Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity that means an influx of volunteer groups spending their spring break volunteering rather than heating up the basketball courts. The groups come from all over the country and bring with them volunteers, funds, and a surge of energy that matches any overtime game.

“The students bring a lot of enthusiasm to the jobsite. You can see them go through a transformation over the week that shows it truly is a life-changing experience for many of them,” says Charlie Franck, core volunteer with Asheville Area Habitat.

Most groups will work mainly on Habitat’s construction site in West Asheville, but some will also try their hand in the Habitat ReStore and on Habitat’s Home Repair sites. This year brings a mix of Collegiate Challenge and Global Village groups, comprised of college students and one national IT business. The groups are housed at Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, allowing them to enjoy the beauty of the mountains with access to hiking trails nearby. Each group will participate in a dinner with Habitat partner families who are in-process, allowing the volunteers an opportunity to get to know the people they are helping through their volunteer labor.

Visiting groups in March are:

Week One (March 2-6): Wilkes University (Pennsylvania), pictured above and in this Flickr album

Week Two (March 9-13): Heartland Technology Group (IT Company)

Week Three (March 16-20): Lesley University (Massachusetts); Ramapo College of New Jersey (½ week with Habitat, ½ week with other non-profits)

Week Four (March 23-27): University of Missouri

Construction Services Volunteer Coordinator Stephanie Wallace noted, “We are thrilled to welcome both new and repeat groups this year. Wilkes, Heartland Technology and University of Missouri are joining us for the first time, while Lesley and Ramapo are returning for the 4th time!”