Felicia Graham understands what goes into building a home.
“It’s a lot of work,” Graham said. “A lot of work.”
Graham isn’t a builder, nor is she a contractor or a construction worker.
She’s just a homeowner.
Graham’s is one of many families to have a home built with the help of Syracuse Habitat for Humanity, a local affiliate of the national organization that builds houses for low-income families with the aid of donated materials and volunteer labor. In order to get a Habitat house, homeowners must meet certain criteria, put down a $500 deposit and invest 300 hours of labor — “sweat equity” — with the organization. In exchange, Habitat volunteers build a house for them and finance it with a no-interest 20-year loan.
Graham learned about Habitat through a newspaper article.
“It sounded like something I was interested in,” she said. “I applied and I was approved, and now I have a house.”
Graham said that aiding in the building process of her home has given her a deep appreciation for what she has.
“You learn to love your home inside and out,” she said. “It teaches you values and responsibility. It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Picnic at LBP
Graham was one of many homeowners, volunteers, Habitat board members and family members to attend Syracuse Habitat’s first annual picnic at Long Branch Park in Liverpool last Thursday. The picnic replaced the usual black-tie dinner the organization usually holds to celebrate its volunteers and its mission.
“We usually do a dinner, but this year we decided to do a picnic,” said Kristen Brandt, resource development director for Syracuse Habitat. “That way we could invite the children and families of our volunteers and homeowners.”
Brandt said that the relaxed atmosphere was one that everyone could enjoy and was much more in line with the nature of Habitat’s volunteers.
“Our supporters are the kinds of people who want to sit with their neighbor and talk,” she said. “This atmosphere is much more conducive to that than a formal dinner.”
Habitat: A history
The Syracuse affiliate of Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1984 and completed its first house in 1986. Since that time, the organization has built or remodeled over 50 houses in the Syracuse area.
Brian Moore, who recently joined Habitat’s board, said the faith-based organization has done a lot of very visible work in the Syracuse area.
“It’s great to see,” Moore said. “We have a very holistic approach to bringing people to their ultimate goal of home ownership. We really try to work with the families.”
Syracuse Habitat is now working on building homes on the city’s Near West Side. Brandt said the organization has committed to that area for the next two or three years and has already constructed 17 homes.
“What drew us there was some of the complexities that community faces,” said Moore. “That area faces a number of different issues. Certainly, substandard housing is at the top of that list. If there ever was a place that our mission can make an impact, that’s definitely it.”
Moore said the organization’s affiliation with a national organization only strengthens it and improves its ability to carry out its mission.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said. “We can meet with national representatives from Habitat and they give us input into our local operation. We benefit from that experience.”
A volunteer-friendly organization
Syracuse Habitat also benefits from the experience of a number of dedicated volunteers, many of whom attended the picnic at Long Branch Park. Habitat construction manager Paul Mabe, who has been with the organization for four years, is grateful in particular for the handful of longtime volunteers.
“A lot of volunteers have been around for a number of years,” Mabe said. “They’re really great. They help the newer volunteers to learn the ropes.”
Indeed, all training volunteers get is onsite — Mabe said there’s no real instruction for new volunteers beyond the actual building of the homes. But the volunteers said Mabe makes up for that by designing structures that are very volunteer-friendly.
“Paul Mabe is terrific in planning things and seeing that they get done,” said volunteer Jack Henessy, a longtime volunteer. “He works with an architect to design one-story houses built on a slab with no basements. That way there’s no two-story roofs or stairs to work on. It’s much easier on the volunteers.”
And the volunteers enjoy the time they spend working on the homes.
“The regulars are all good people,” said volunteer Peter Patch. “It’s a lot of fun. We laugh a lot.”
In addition to the laughs, the volunteers get to walk away with a feeling that they’ve done something worthwhile.
“It’s an excellent program,” Henessy said. “It’s a helping hand, not a handout.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.