Volunteers work to build 100 homes in one week

Michelle Norton

Staff Writer

This week the University of Houston's residence halls housed a group of volunteers who were helping provide housing for those who need it most.

The volunteers were with the 1998 Jimmy Carter Work Project, an affiliate of the Habitat for Humanity International. The JCWP will stay in Houston until Saturday attempting to build an unprecedented 100 homes in one week.

Founded by President Jimmy Carter in 1984, the JCWP has built more than 380 homes throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada and Europe.

"We have become small players in an exciting global effort to alleviate the curse of homelessness," said Carter, whose mission is to raise awareness of the critical need for affordable housing through the project.

Houston is home to more than 180,000 families living in poverty and has some 72,000 overcrowded housing units. And more than 15 percent of all units are affected by physical deficiencies.

"As the fourth largest city (in the United States), Houston has a serious need for housing," said Mike Shirl, executive director of Houston Habitat for Humanity.

"It needs help, not only because of its population, but also because ... Houston's housing needs are fairly hidden in the sprawl," Shirl said.

Houston Habitat for Humanity and HHI have been preparing for the 1998 JCWP for almost two years, selecting qualified families, purchasing land, acquiring materials and supplies and soliciting financial support.

With the help of 1,500 Habitat for Humanity volunteers from around the world and some 4,500 Houstonians, JCWP will build three- to four-bedroom houses in the city's Second and Fifth wards.

"It takes a lot of work to build these houses, but it is interesting to meet people from all over the world," said Stephanie Stark, a sophomore art history and pre-optometry major volunteering with the project.

Shito Ito, a volunteer from Japan, agreed. "It is interesting to learn not only how to build a house but about the different people in Houston," Ito said.

Volunteers work 10 or more hours a day, learning not only how to build a house but also gaining essential values they can utilize in everyday situations.

Nancy Dale, an accountant from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., has worked with the JCWP for eight years. "The program encourages brotherhood, develops worthiness within the family and allows a variety of people to come together for a common cause," she said.

While most of the volunteers at the JCWP have never picked up a hammer before in their lives, many still braved the hot and humid Houston weather for the chance to help those in need.

In fact, the record heat that caused local temperatures to soar near 100 degrees early this week also caused a few cases of heat exhaustion at the work sites.

Carly Oden, a member of the Junior League for Women who was volunteering for the first time, said, "I have gained a new respect for people who choose construction as a career."

Just as the heat didn't stop the 6,000 JCWP volunteers from giving their time and effort towards the cause, neither did the onset of age.

Virgil Prata, a 72-year-old volunteer from East Point, Ga., has volunteered for the JCWP since its creation in 1984. "It's a lot of hard work, but I enjoy doing it," he said. "Everyone is so nice. I haven't met a bad apple yet."

Students from local high schools and colleges, including UH, also helped with the work. According to Hines College of Architecture Dean Bruce Webb, several students from the college and members of the UH chapter of HHH are helping build houses in the Fifth Ward.

In addition to the volunteers' construction work, the new homeowners also dedicated time and effort to building the houses.

Prospective homeowners are required to contribute 300 hours of "sweat equity" helping build their own homes.

"Habitat has successfully removed the stigma of charity by substituting it with a sense of partnership," Carter said. "The people who will live in the homes work side-by-side with the volunteers, so they feel very much that they are on an equal level."

Once built, the houses can be purchased anywhere from $43,000 to $46,000 with a no-interest 15-to-30-year mortgage. Each house is sponsored by a donation from a private corporation.

In order for someone to qualify for home ownership, he or she must be a first-time home owner and earn between $11,000 and $23,000.

Sonya Thomas, a mother of three and an employee at the Methodist Hospital, has already completed 250 of her required hours working in a warehouse. "Prior to JCWP coming to Houston, myself, along with the other homeowners, had to assemble the framing for our houses in a warehouse," she explained. "This week, we are finishing the last 50 hours of our requirement."

Potential homeowners must also attend home-ownership meetings that explain various aspects of owning a new home. Thomas had to wait approximately one year before signing the papers on her new home - during which time she made a down payment of $5,000 and attended the meetings.

"I was required to attend meetings that taught me how to take care of my new home, how to keep it up and how to make repairs," she said.

When the project is complete, more than 20,000 volunteers will have donated their time and effort to this event. Next year's JCWP will take place in the Phillippines.

Dedication for the Houston JCWP will be held Friday at the First Baptist Church, West Loop at the Katy Freeway, at 6 p.m. A party at the Transco Tower's Water Wall will follow to celebrate.

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