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The International Writers Magazine
: Habitat for humanity

Building Ohanas With Aloha
Molly Ness

Judy Serrano’s home is a tin-roofed shack, where rainwater turns dirt floors into mud. Over the years, she has learned which rickety front steps to dodge, how to rehang the front door on its hinges, and how to squeeze a bit more water out of a rusty spigot. Her three teenage children have grown up sharing one bedroom and taking turns sleeping on a couch. And though Judy works fulltime at a pineapple canning factory, the cost of land and housing on Oahu make homeownership an unattainable dream.

Link to H4H here

Judy is only one of thousands of native Hawaiians and millions of Americans living in substandard housing.
In 1999, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released staggering statistics about America’s housing crisis: 4.9 million households containing some 10.9 million individuals face "worst-case housing needs." Of these households, only 4.1 million actually receive government assistance. In 1976, a visionary and devout man, Millard Fuller, a devout man passionate about social justice, began his crusade to eliminate substandard homes. What followed was the creation of Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit organization aiming to build affordable homes for those who lack adequate shelter.

Since 1976, Habitat has built more than 50,000 houses with families throughout the United States and another 100,000-plus houses in communities around the world. Now at work in 100 countries, Habitat homes will shelter one million people by 2005. These houses are purchased by the homeowner families at no profit, no interest loans. Low-income families become homeowners based on need and their willingness to work "sweat equity" hours building homes in partnership with Habitat.

The Hawaiian Islands have been particularly devastated by the housing crisis. The average single-family house in Oahu sells for $465,000, a sum of money unattainable for many low-income native Hawaiian families like the Serranos. The Honolulu affiliate of Habitat for Humanity has built 50 ohanas (Hawaiian for homes). Judy Serrano is one of the lucky ones to qualify for a house in Kapolei, a growing city on Oahu’s leeward coast. Habitat has taken on an enormous project here – a development of 50 Habitat homes.

In June 2004, I traveled to Oahu, not to lounge poolside or to check out the surf on the North Shore, but rather to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. As a member of a 13-person Global Village team, I spent two weeks painting, caulking, sawing, and roofing in the Kapolei development. We flew from Canada, from New York, from California and Virginia to build alongside families who were at least 51% Hawaiian and who lived well below the poverty line. We had all come at transitional times in our lives; we were quitting jobs, starting businesses, getting married, graduating from college, needing more than the status quo of our daily lives. We came in search of community, in search of direction for undecided paths, in search of confirmation that we were on the right road. Habitat had lured us with the prospect of creating community partnerships; we came hoping to build alongside of the families who would inhabit these homes, to connect our work to the people who would benefit from it.

The fourteen days of work were long and hot, and the tasks often seemed meaningless: digging ditches, moving dirt mounds from soon-to-be driveways, repainting trim. Our initial expectations were not always the realities we faced. We had very little contact with the families for whom we built. Families came to the worksite only on the weekends and often, they did not know who we were or what our purpose in coming was. The families hadn’t heard of Habitat’s Global Village project, they had the misconception that we were paid workers, and they were surprised to learn that we were volunteers who had fronted a fair sum of money to come to work. We had hoped to see the fruits of our labors develop over our building time, to stand back from one house after two weeks and know our work was complete. Instead, our work was piecemeal and scattered. We worked on several homes at a time and the fundamental building was left to more skilled construction workers. Some of us tried to hold fast to the idealism we arrived with, the hope that we were making a difference in the lives of these families. Others were vocal in their complaints. Team squabbles erupted as our tempers grew shorter and our patience dwindled in the heat. As the days trickled by, we were slower to pick up our paintbrushes in the morning, less eager to complete our assigned work, and quicker to take lunch breaks. Finally on the tenth day of building, two of our team members put their paintbrushes down and quit working entirely. They believed that Habitat had shortchanged them of the experience they had envisioned; they would not leave Oahu with a satisfactory feeling of accomplishment, a confirmed sense of volunteerism, or the knowledge that their time and work was valued by Habitat as an organization or the families for which we built.

I, too, felt similar frustration. And while Habitat had hooked me on the platitudes that are intertwined with service organizations, the realizations I took home with me were very different than the ones I expected I would learn. My Habitat experience confirmed much of what I already believed about poverty in the United States – how difficult the cycle is to break and how poverty invades every element of its victims’ lives. As a former schoolteacher, I had seen the impact that inadequate housing had on my students. In my classes as a doctoral student, I had studied Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an educational psychology term explaining that until basic human needs such as food and shelter are met, cognitive and emotional growth is stunted. Simply put, my students would struggle to learn to read and write until they had safe homes, winter jackets, and food to eat. I also hadn’t thought of the pervasiveness of poverty – that poverty isn’t isolated to our inner-city communities or our rural areas. Even in the paradise of the Hawaiian islands, there are communities which are left largely ignored.

Thousands of visitors flock to Oahu for the 112 miles of white-sand beaches, for the snorkeling in aqua-blue surf, and for the bustling nightlife of Waikiki. But tucked past the sugarcane fields and away from the glitzy hotels, there are low-income families who cannot afford a roof over their heads, a functional bathroom, or air-conditioning for the sweltering summers. We were not building in the slums of decrepit cities or the silent rural poverty pockets of Appalachia. Across the nation, there are families living in substandard housing. These families cannot be ignored and need innovative solutions, like Habitat for Humanity.

And while I may not have an entire photo album full of family members I met and built with during my Habitat experience, I have the face of Judy Serrano to remember: her bronzed dimpled cheeks and a painter’s cap resting crooked on a nest of gnarled black hair. Judy is my face on the crisis that America’s low-income families battle. Often it’s easier to blame the victims for their conditions, to think that they are poor because of mistakes they had made in their lives. But Judy Serrano was a tireless worker, who put in long hours to give her children a fair shot in life. Habitat for Humanity took her out of that crumbling shack and moved her into a clean home with a bedroom for each child, brand-new kitchen appliances, and enough space to have her entire family over for Thanksgiving dinner. On a particularly humid afternoon, I snuck into the shade of the Judy’s garage. Her new home was little more than the bare frame of wooden planks atop a cement slab, yet every day – like clockwork – Judy drove to the building site and swept her garage. Broom in hand, she would bustle around pipes and sawhorses, sweeping nails hidden in dust piles out the door. I watched as she swept and listened to her explain the true meaning of aloha, a word to me that had previously conjured up touristy images. She told me how each letter in the word stands for a quality that native Hawaiians aspired to: A for Akahia or kindness, L for lokahi or unity, O for Ohu’olu or pleasantness, H for Ha’aha’a or humility and modesty, and A for Ahonui for patience and perseverance. I couldn’t help but think how different our world would be with a true application of aloha and with the actualization of Habitat’s mission.
© Molly Katherine Ness, M.Ed. November 2004

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