After a long day on the job, running errands or even just fighting Baton Rouge traffic, many of us can’t wait to return to our home to relax and unwind. Home. It is the place where children take their first steps, where teens pin a corsage on their first date and where families simply enjoy time together. Home represents a larger sense of community. Home is hope. Home can provide strength, stability and self-reliance. But what if owning a home is out of reach?
According to the US Census Bureau, 58.8% of homes in Baton Rouge are owner-occupied. Nationally, that number is 64.4%. This means many local residents don’t have that oasis to call their own. For the past 17 years, Episcopal students and faculty have been working with Habitat for Humanity of Baton Rouge to boost homeownership in the local community and help more families realize the dream of having a place to call their own.
The annual Habitat Youth Build is supported by Episcopal, Catholic High School and St. Joseph’s Academy and sponsored by the Albemarle Foundation. Lynn Clark, Habitat Executive Director, says since 2001 students and faculty have built 19 homes for area residents. “It’s amazing to witness the generosity and hard work of the students, teachers and faculty as they come together to make a difference in the life of a deserving local family,” says Clark.
The annual Habitat build is Episcopal’s largest service learning project every year. Service Learning Center Director Matt Holt says annually more than 100 students contribute hundreds of hours of service to the effort. In addition, numerous faculty and staff members help organize the shifts in advance of the build days and spend time on site chaperoning student activities. Holt says students are not there to observe. Students are donating sweat equity as they install siding, framing and plywood. They also put in windows, cabinetry and landscaping. While the thought of such physical work may intimidate some, Holt says everyone who participates walks away with a sense of accomplishment and pride. “There’s nothing more meaningful than helping someone achieve the dream of homeownership,” says Holt. “It is a pleasure to share this experience with our students.” The significance of building these homes is not lost on the student builders.
“The act of building a house is both physical and metaphorical - we are not only literally raising the walls on a structure that will eventually be a house, but we are also metaphorically creating a new life, a new beginning, for someone,” says senior Alyssa Macaluso, who appreciated the opportunity to be stretched beyond her comfort zone. “I smashed more than my fair share of fingers, bent more than a few nails, but it’s an experience that I hope I have the ability to repeat again. Habitat’s an amazing opportunity, at any point - from raising the walls to putting up siding and painting. In addition, the experience of having a future homeowner work alongside you as the house comes together is both beautiful and precious.”
Aside from lessons on the proper way to frame up a window or how to cut in with a paint brush, Youth Build students are also learning what it means to help their neighbor. “These students learn firsthand about poverty, its effects, and the need for affordable housing,” says Clark. “They are uplifting our community one family at a time.”
“Working for habitat is probably one of the most demanding service projects that the Center for Service Learning sponsors,” says senior Douglas Robins. “To me, however, it is the most rewarding.” Robins recognizes the importance of creating a home for families, where they can come together, relax and escape the stresses of the day. “When we think about what a home is in this way, the work that we are doing with habitat is more than just building a place for people to sleep. We are building a set for a family to live out their lives. Like I said, Habitat is hard work. But what brought me back and what will continue to bring me back is that through building a home, I am not just building a structure, but I am building a future. A future for all the people who will lay their heads on the pillows for this family and for the families who inhabit it for years to come.”
Habitat of Baton Rouge has built or rehabbed 353 homes in the local community. At each build site, current and future homeowners work side-by-side with volunteers, with each homeowner completing 255 hours of their own sweat equity. These homeowners purchase their homes with an affordable, no-interest mortgage. In addition, Habitat provides the homeowners financial literacy classes to help them budget and manage their finances so that they can sustain their home for years to come. Clark says all of this is critical for providing more families a safe and stable home. She says families who own their own home flourish, build wealth and break the cycle of poverty. High homeownership rates have also been shown to boost a community’s overall home values, lower crime rates and improve school systems.
Episcopal senior Emily White recognized the impact to the community as she arrived at the build site. “I learned that the row of houses leading up to the one we were working on were all Habitat Houses! That’s awesome,” she says. “I hope the owner of the house enjoys her home and I really want to see the finished product of this project.”
Students and faculty are able to make such an impact in just four weekends. Senior Pierson Luscy says the time spent was well worth it. “Before doing this service, I was looking for a job to attend on my weekends or as much as I could, but after going through the experiences, I dealt with, being great people and enthusiastic attitudes, I am planning on shortly to make Habitat for Humanity apart of my weekly routine” he says. “For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I did something productive.”
Seeing the students’ passion and excitement for helping a neighbor is rewarding for the Episcopal faculty and staff who volunteer their time. “In working with Habitat, I see Episcopal students at their best – compassionate, cooperative, flexible, funny,” says Writing Center Director Dr. Alan Newton. “They’re also handy with a paintbrush or a hammer.” Longtime Habitat supporter Sarah Pulliam agrees. “This is one of the most worthwhile things we do with the kids,” she says reflecting on the sense of accomplishment students and faculty feel after working a shift on site.
After the hammering and painting has stopped later this month, a Baton Rouge mom and her two daughters will have their own home. They will cook in their own kitchen. They will take pride in making the space their own. We are proud of the all of the students and volunteers who supported this effort to make their dream a reality.