Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity 2016
Beginning in January Tom and I spent 8 weeks in Las Cruces, New Mexico building houses for Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity. As most people probably know, Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that helps provide safe, good quality, affordable housing for people in need. In the United States, Habitat helps address income inequality, providing stable homes for children and adults alike so that they might to thrive, build communities, and become more independent. Future homeowners work alongside volunteers in building their houses and do additional volunteering with their local Habitat affiliate office; in return they receive an affordable mortgage with zero interest. I know that in Mesilla Valley at least, the mortgages are hundreds of dollars less than what the families might be paying for renting substandard housing that doesn’t provide sufficient living space nor a location desirable for work or schooling.
Though it is an international organization with regional differences, Habitat for Humanity in the United States partners with local affiliate offices like Mesilla Valley to raise funds, purchase building sites, provide financing, select future homeowners and provide education and support, coordinate volunteer labor, and of course, accomplish the construction of the house. I haven’t (yet!) had experience with other Habitat affiliates, but I can tell you that even without the ability to compare them, that Mesilla Valley does an amazing job. Tom and I were there as a part of the RV Care-A-Vanners program in which the affiliate provides a free place to park as well as full RV hookups in exchange for us volunteering 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, Tuesday through Saturday. Many Care-A-Vanner volunteers have dozens of 2 week builds under their belts, have thus acquired some serious skills over the years, and are incredibly valuable to the home building process. They are seriously inspiring and a real pleasure to volunteer with.
I had initially come across the Care-A-Vanner program 2 years ago since I would need a free place to sleep if I were to volunteer in an area for more than a few days. Even though I didn’t have an RV, I was welcomed during my 2 weeks in Las Cruces in January 2014 and had an incredible experience (according to Pete the construction supervisor, my Honda Civic still holds the unofficial record for “smallest rig”). Tom has built for with the Care-A-Vanner program at least 8 weeks a year for the past 6 or 7 years with different affiliates though he volunteers in Mesilla Valley almost every year. Thus, when we were signing up for builds in 2016 it was a no-brainer for us to go back to Mesilla Valley: Not only have we both had fantastic experiences there, but the people who work at the affiliate are wonderful, helpful, dedicated, organized, and they take super-good care of us. I’ll write more about the construction experience and include more photos in a future post, but it can’t be said often enough how hard-working, kind, and helpful everyone is at Mesilla Valley; they bend over backwards for volunteers to make us comfortable and to help in any ways they can. As a first-time volunteer in 2014 who was sleeping in my car, I was fussed over like nobody’s business, and as return volunteers Tom and I were welcomed back with hugs and smiles and just about the same amount of fuss.
Tom and I have similar reasons for continuing to volunteer with Habitat, but speaking for myself, I do it because I believe it directly addresses inequality. I think the organization provides a critical link in lifting families out of poverty and an invaluable opportunity for the children to have safe and stable homes, be integrated within their community, and have access to better schools. For most of these kids it’s their first opportunity to have a bedroom of their own – their own space – and I’ve heard dozens of stories from other volunteers about witnessing children walking into rooms and having the moment of realization that it is theirs. Drywalling a house in late January I myself found a message written on a wall stud by a 7 year old that proclaimed this was his room (with three exclamation points – !!!).
I believe that these houses have a transformational affect on families, allowing them to have access to some of the same opportunities many of us take for granted. As one of the slogan’s goes, “Habitat is not a handout, but a hand up,” providing a way of leveling the playing field by directly addressing inequalities in housing. With a stable place to call home, and without the potential threat of having to move and switch schools and potentially lose friends, I believe these kids are getting a foundation on which to grow – and the statistics back me up: Children growing up in Habitat homes are 25% more likely to graduate high school, 116% more likely to graduate college, and have increased math and reading scores when compared to kids from the same socioeconomic backgrounds. At one of our morning meetings another volunteer brought up the fact that 98% of children in Habitat homes graduate high school.
Finally, I’d like to end this post with a story. Somewhere around the third week I was finishing up installing brackets for pantry shelving. These had been made from floor trim so without the shelves in place it was understandably difficult to picture what was being done. The homeowner, who had been working in a different room, paused behind me and asked what I was working on and so I explained these were for the pantry shelves and that of the 5 shelves the top 2 were 8 inches deep (hence the shorter brackets) and spaced 8 inches apart for canned goods and that the bottom 3 would be 12 inched deep and 12 inches apart in order to accommodate bigger items like cereal boxes. Her eyes grew wide and she told me that she’d never had a pantry and that she didn’t have enough space to store food in the apartment she was renting. After she had returned to the other room I realized that I hadn’t read her homeowner bio that’s usually posted somewhere on the inside of the house. On my next break I read that she wanted this house so that her son would have a stable place to grow up. And that he loved dogs more than anything but that as renters they were unable to have pets. She would now be able to give her son his own bedroom, a backyard, and a dog. In that moment I felt incredibly honored to have the opportunity to help this family in whatever ways I could during my time there – and to help make this boy’s dream of having his own dog come true.
There were many moments I felt grateful and privileged to work with Habitat, not just interacting directly with the homeowners, but just watching the progress on the four houses being built during our time in Las Cruces. It was truly an incredible experience and I am so, so grateful to have been able to participate.