The United Church of Marco Island formally donated money towards their 15th and 16th Collier County Habitat for Humanity homes during their regular 10:00 AM service on Sunday, March 11th. Executive Vice President of Development, Reverend Lisa Lefkow, was on hand to graciously accept the donation and also delivered the sermon for the day.
Habitat for Humanity of Collier County began in 1978 as one of the first affiliates outside of its home base in Georgia. Over the years, Collier County’s Habitat branch has built more that 1,400 homes. “When Habitat for Humanity started in Collier County, we were among the first churches to be a participant,” explains Dick Hearn, United Church of Marco member and an active participant with Habitat. Partnering with local congregations and other organizations and corporations has made the Collier branch one of the most successful affiliates of Habitat International.
Offering “a hand up, rather than a hand out,” the application process to receive a Habitat home is rigorous. Recipients must be be legal residents or US citizens, have lived or worked in Collier County for one year and be a first time home?buyer. They must also earn at least $18,000 annually, have no criminal history and must be willing to complete 500 hours of labor, or “sweat equity,” to assist in construction of other Habitat homes. According to Lisa Lefkow, the familymust also, “demonstrate a need. We see that manifested primarily in three ways. Either the (current housing) is substandard, overcrowded, or more than 30 percent of monthly wages is being spent on rent. We see the vast majority of that last expression of need in families paying 60 to 80 percent of their monthly income on their housing expense.”
“Every year Habitat is able to provide 100 new families with a decent home,” explains Curt Gillespie, United Church of Marco member and Habitat enthusiast. “But every year Habitat gets applications for over 1,000 families competing to try to get these homes.
“One very important point that people don’t understand is that these Habitat housing partners buy their homes. Habitat is able to offer them an interest-free mortgage where they make a small down-payment and then interest-free, regular monthly mortgage payments,” continues Gillespie.
As Lefkow further explains, “the family purchases the house at our cost. What the church has raised, or what “home sponsors” raise, is the hard cost of building a house, or everything from the concrete slab up. That cost is $50,000. Additional costs include purchasing the land and the infrastructure to make it a build-able lot. So the actual full cost of building a house is about $110,000, and that is what we sell the house for. $50,000 is underwritten, in this case, by the church. The other$60,000 will come in through other avenues such as other donors, grants, funding programs and recycled money.”
Gillespie continued, “This explains the growth of the whole Habitat concept because as each homeowner moves in and gives their monthly payments, these payments come back into the Habitat organization and go right back out the door to keep building more houses to put more Habitat homeowners under roofs. The money is basically recycled. Once a gift is given, it just keeps on giving.”
Donations are also provided by volunteers. In spending 500 hours building toward their dream home, Habitat recipients mix with volunteers of all ages and backgrounds at project sites. Gillespie spends two to three days a week working on Habitat homes. “People show up every day from all over Collier County. We have snowbirds and even those on vacation who would rather help out at Habitat than play golf. They can always get information from the Habitat office or website on where we are working.” As for his duties, “I swing my hammer, that’s what I do,” Gillespie states.
Volunteers work on homes Mondays through Thursdays and on Saturdays from 8:00 AM until noon. “On Saturday there is a lot of corporation-type participation,” adds Hearn. “A lot of schools bring kids down for the day to come and work for Habitat,” adds Bob Cort, also an active Habitat volunteer andmember of The United Church of Marco. Currently, they are working on a new Habitat location called Regal Acres, just off US-41, east of Collier Boulevard. “In Regal Acres, Habitat is building duplexes, so each half is considered a home,” adds Hearn.
“We are also busy throughout Collier County rehabilitating homes that have come on the market through foreclosure. Habitat is stepping in to buy up some of this inventory. We completely rehabilitate the homes to make them like new and then place a Habitat family,” explains Gillespie.
Adds Lefkow, “it’s been a wonderful process. We started purchasing foreclosures on our own about three years ago. Now we are in the process of working with the county to take over their Neighborhood Stabilization Program. We are delighted that the county has the confidence in us to be able to complete this program on their behalf.” By combining funding, Collier county and Habitat are working together in harmony to create more homes for the underprivileged.
This innovative idea echoes the main goal behind Habitat which “is to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the face of the earth by building adequate and basic housing. Furthermore, all of our words and actions are for the ultimate purpose of putting shelter on the hearts and minds of people in such a powerful way that poverty housing and homelessness become socially, politically and religiouslyunacceptable in our nations and world. Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.”
This goal brings to mind the story of Efrain Valdez. Living in poverty, his family became Habitat homeowners, when Efrain was 13 years old. Now, 14 years later, Efrain owns his own business and his own home. “His mom was a faithful employee on Marco Island for many, many years. She worked at the Marriott and was even recognized as employee of the year, so there’s a great Marco Island connection to the Valdez family,” adds Lefkow. Efrain Valdez is a true testament to what can happen when the cycle of poverty is broken.
The United Church of Marco’s fundraising efforts are a great example of how so many come together to place families such as Efrain’s in new, affordable homes. Fundraising efforts through the church consist of a display booth set up in the church entryway, regular bulletin announcements, a ladies’ bake sale, as well as an annual missions pledge from the church itself, and The Bargain Basket on Marco Island, which is owned by the church. All these efforts combined raised $100,000, making it possible to build two homes this year.
As an added bonus, “when the church funds a home, our Bargain Basket will open its doors to the family and givethem X amount of dollars towards furniture, clothing, utensils or whatever is needed to furnish the home,” adds Hearn.
With such an outpouring of love and kindness, Habitat home recipients “know what they have and they appreciate it. They will go to the ends of the earth to make their payment on time, every time. Our collection experience would be the envy of any bank in the world,” exclaims Gillespie.
Lisa Lefkow agrees. “We are one of the few Habitat affiliates that do require families to come into our office every month to make their mortgage payments. This makes our delinquency rate very low. We also use this method to distribute information.” Free tax preparation, financial counseling, applications for kids’ summer camp and other information is available during the monthly meetings with each Habitat family.
With such a unique business model, Habitat for Humanity is helping to break the cycle of poverty, while also being able to recycle money within their organization. Thanks to the efforts of congregations such as The United Church of Marco, Collier County’s Habitat for Humanity is continuing to provide for those who need it most.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and Marco Lutheran Church, along with numerous congregations and businesses all over Marco Island and Collier County have also raised money and volunteered time to support Habitat’s cause. Visit habitatcollier.org to volunteer, donate, or to learn more about their innovative progress towards ending poverty.