Church coalitions crucial to Habitat success - Catholic Courier

Church coalitions crucial to Habitat success

In his car, Ray Griswold carries around a dog-eared ink-jet-cartridge-donation box and information on a host of other fundraising opportunities: donating spare change at Lent, selling pies at Thanksgiving, and recycling used clothing and cell phones.

His goal is to get more churches to sponsor Flower City Habitat for Humanity homes by making it easy for faith groups to raise funds year-round.

"Our concept has been to find multiple revenue streams and multiple forms of fundraising," said Griswold, of St. Joseph Church in Penfield. "We like to get a number of churches involved so there’s no humongous burden on any given church."

As chair of Flower City Habitat for Humanity’s local Church Relations Committee, Griswold hopes to add more church coalitions to about seven existing coalitions that are building or have recently built homes for low-income families in the City of Rochester.

Ecumenical and interfaith coalitions have made significant contributions to Flower City Habitat for Humanity, said Arthur Woodward, the organization’s chief executive officer. Coalitions have built 31 of the nearly 175 homes that Habitat has completed since the local organization was founded in 1984, he said. Eligible homeowners earn less than 60 percent of the median income for the greater Rochester area.

The origins of coalitions date back to 1996, when St. Joseph Church in Penfield and St. Louis Church in Pittsford each independently sponsored a house, Woodward recalled.

For future projects, the churches decided to work with other congregations in their respective towns. The Penfield coalition began in 1997, and the Pittsford coalition began in 1998.

Since then, interfaith and ecumenical coalitions have made several significant contributions to Habitat’s efforts, said Jeff Gerstenberger, chairman of Flower City Habitat’s Leadership Council, which sets homeowner policy and oversees general operations and community outreach.

The first contribution is monetary. Coalitions are tasked with raising $65,000 to fund construction on an individual home and finding volunteers to staff the home’s build site. Though it costs $75,000 to fully fund a home, the balance is often made up by contributions from other organizations.

"Overall, coalitions sponsor 30 to 40 percent of the houses that Habitat builds," said Gerstenberger, a Greece resident and a member of Messiah Lutheran Church and the Greece Churches Habitat Coalition.

In 2009, the Greece coalition intends to build a new home in Rochester, said Bill Mason of Greece, chairman of the coalition and a member of Greece United Methodist Church. Mason said the coalition has been able to build three homes in Rochester and a fourth in Hubli, India, through the successes of such ongoing fundraisers as an annual pie sale.

"We didn’t have much left in the bank after the last house (in 2006), but it’s amazing how much that’s grown since then," Mason said.

Other coalition homes built recently include 132 Orange St. in Rochester, which was completed by a coalition of churches in southwestern Monroe County, including the Catholic parishes of Guardian Angels and Good Shepherd in Henrietta and St. Joseph in Rush. A home at 187 Orange St. was built by churches from Brighton, including the Catholic parishes of Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady Queen of Peace.

A home at 19 Grape St. in Rochester was built by churches from Perinton and Fairport, including the Catholic parishes of Church of the Assumption, Church of the Resurrection and St. John of Rochester.

In 2007, a home at 68 Orange St. was built by an interfaith partnership that included St. Louis Church, while a home at 52 Hoeltzer St. in Rochester was built by Penfield churches, including St. Joseph.

Not only are coalitions major contributors when it comes to funding Habitat homes, they also recruit the bulk of skilled and unskilled volunteers to work on the homes as well as Habitat committees.

"The committee that works on family selection is made up almost entirely of people who came to Habitat through coalitions," Gerstenberger noted.

Some of the construction-site volunteers in 2008 included staff members from Good Shepherd Parish, who spent a day working on the foundation for the Southwest coalition’s home, said Barbara Swiecki, pastoral administrator of Guardian Angels. She said though the staffers were rookies at construction, they attacked their jobs with determination.

"I think the foreman was surprised with how much we got done," Swiecki said.

Swiecki said the Southwest coalition — which includes Guardian Angels, and Good Shepherd as well as St. Joseph in Rush — began as a project of the Rush-Henrietta Interfaith League. Several Gates and Chili churches also joined in the effort of about 16 churches. Much to the coalition’s surprise, it was able to raise the funds necessary to build 132 Orange St. even before the project was completed. Fundraisers included selling house pins, raffling a quilt and hosting a talent show.

"We were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to raise the $65,000 necessary," Swiecki explained.

Volunteers aren’t the only ones who sweat during a home’s construction. Before they can move in, homeowners must put in 250 hours of "sweat equity" working on someone else’s house and 200 hours working on their own. They also must pay a 20-year no-interest mortgage once they have moved in. Habitat also provides workshops on budgeting, home maintenance, safety and security.

Those rules and workshops are intended to keep Habitat homeowners in their homes and dedicated to improving their neighborhoods, which often have older homes, absentee landlords, code violations, frequent evictions and high amounts of lead contamination, Gerstenberger said.

Since homes are built on city-owned vacant lots, Habitat has added $6 million to the city’s tax base, and homeowners have paid more than $1.2 million in property taxes to the city, he said.

"As part of the process of sweat equity, homeowners have an opportunity to work with other homeowners who are going to be on their street," Gerstenberger said. "If you watched Rauber Street (one of the sites of previous Habitat builds in Rochester), you would see new homes, but you would start to see changes in the existing homes: a new roof, new windows. Guys of questionable nature who had been hanging out at the end of the street weren’t there anymore. It sort of feeds on itself."

EDITOR’S NOTE: To start a Habitat for Humanity coalition or to get involved in an existing one, contact Ray Griswold at 585-264-0232. For other questions about Flower City Habitat for Humanity, including donations and volunteering, contact Diane Walker at 585-546-1470.

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