By Alexander Germanis
Whether in a crowded city or the wilderness, should one discover one is lost there are a number of important survival tips to follow. The first and most vital survival tip is not, as many would think, to find water. The first step of survival is to find shelter.
Although shelter is a basic human need and right, many families feel lost without strong, stable shelters they can call their own. For those many people in need, Habitat for Humanity was formed.
For nearly half a century, Habitat for Humanity has been there to help families acquire their own homes, gaining not only this basic need, but also the pride and dignity that comes from helping to build that need for themselves.
The McLean County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity has worked for 38 years in a variety of projects to build more than just a means of survival for the members of the community, but also to build hope for one family at a time.
Anyone who has ever made mortgage payments on their home is familiar with the term equity. In the simplest of terms, the equity is the amount of the house a homeowner has actually paid for or, in other words, earned.
For many things in life, earning equity in something does not always come by spending cash, however. Habitat for Humanity McLean County (HFHMC) Executive Director Jolene Aldus knows firsthand that it often takes time and effort—proving your passion, as it were—to truly make something yours. This is something she refers to as “sweat equity.”
Before her current position, Jolene spent time working for Habitat on a volunteer basis. “I volunteered at the ReStore and build sites in a neighboring county years ago and fell in love with the mission immediately,” she recalls. “The need for affordable housing was very relatable to me, and I knew the impact that it can have on a family’s ability to thrive in different aspects of their life.”
After moving to McLean County, COVID hit and made further volunteering a temporary impossibility. But when she was blessed with the opportunity to officially join Habitat, Jolene found a new way to prove her passion.
Now, Jolene spends each day helping families of McLean County put in their own sweat equity to earn their own homes. “A common misconception is that the houses we build for people are free,” she explains. “That is not the case. We like to say we offer a hand-up, not a handout. Not only are the families purchasing these homes—qualifying for a little-to-no-interest mortgage—but they’re also doing physical labor by working alongside the volunteers and project directors.”
The sweat equity does not stop there. Families also work at the ReStore throughout the year and educate themselves in finances and homeownership to round out their experience.
After driving through a modern subdivision, it may be difficult to believe not all houses are the same. Some are still built with more than just the purpose of putting a roof over someone’s head. Habitat has launched project homes that stand as symbols of honor to more than just the families living in them.
Beginning in 2019, Habitat launched a series of builds, each dedicated to a local hero. These Heroes of Habitat “embody the qualities of selflessness, courage, humility, and service to others,” says Jolene.
In the inaugural year, the Hero of Habitat was Sergeant Joshua P. Rodgers, followed by the honoree Sergeant Anthony R. Maddox. This time, however, the Hero House is being built to honor a local hero of a different type: Feli Sebastian.
A retired psychologist, Feli is a published author and founder of three local nonprofits: Extraordinary Women BN, Labyrinth Outreach Services, and Dreams are Possible. “Her life’s work has always been about serving those who live in any form of disparity, and the impact she has made on so many is overwhelming,” declares Jolene. “She is working alongside the Wilson family to build their new fully accessible home for this year’s Hero House.”
HFHMC is also building its first duplex to honor a hero who has passed on. The Bill McConnell Memorial Build will give Habitat the chance to provide homes for two families simultaneously, reflecting the impact Bill made upon the county through his tireless years working at HFHMC. A volunteer, construction manager, executive director, financial donor, in-kind donor, retired crew member, and president of the board of directors, Bill was an essential element in the functioning of Habitat at myriad levels.
“He was also instrumental in establishing and helping expand the ReStore,” adds Jolene. “Bill envisioned creating more affordable housing for local families by building duplexes, so when a larger lot was acquired, we knew right away that this would be a great opportunity to bring his vision to life.”
Bill did more than build up Habitat. A longtime member of the Wesley United Methodist Church in Bloomington, he helped grow its congregation during the years he worshipped there. To show how much he was loved, the church members have been raising money for the last six months to fund the project that now bears his name.
Of course, none of the homes Habitat helps build would be possible without those willing to put in the work and the initial capital. Shortly after HFHMC opened, BroMenn aided them in relocating four houses, providing shelter for local families. Now, Carle BroMenn is again sponsoring a build—the 2023 Healthcare House—that will be erected by the same caregivers who staff the hospital.
Decent, affordable, and secure housing can make an impact on the physical, mental, and emotional health of both adults and children. “We hear far too often that families must choose between rent or healthcare, food, or transportation,” Jolene laments, “so having a partner like Carle BroMenn, who sees this daily, is very encouraging. Healthcare starts at home, and if we can make homes more affordable so that these choices aren’t something our families ever have to consider, then we are doing the right thing for our community.”
Partners of a different sort, HFHMC’s chapter of women builders are working this year to build their twentieth home—one for each year their chapter has existed. “Women from all walks of life build a home for a family in need in their community,” Jolene says. “This milestone is significant for many reasons, but to celebrate 20 years of women helping women really sends a positive and powerful message to all of humanity. To have 20 of our affiliate’s years facilitated by this amazing group (of volunteers, mind you) is really very inspiring.”
So Much More to Be Done
With the number of families in need of homes and the number of affordable homes dwindling by the year, it seems Habitat is fighting an uphill battle. HFHMC has more than 200 families on their inquiry list alone.
As Habitat International works on new construction; rehabs and repairs old homes; grants small loans for other building projects; advocates for better laws, disaster prevention, and recovery; more efforts are needed on a local level. “Currently,” Jolene says, “our affiliate can support new construction while continuously assessing what more we can do to broaden our reach.”
The more people who are willing to help, the broader that reach can grow. The broader the reach, the more families will come off that lengthy list and move into a new home and a new life. “A life,” Jolene points out, “of financial stability, better healthcare, better jobs, and education. Everyone deserves a decent and affordable place to live.”
Fortunately, some of those families will soon get that place. Next year’s families and lots have been selected and HFHMC is happy to announce they will be breaking ground on their 200th home in the spring of 2024.
A Hand Up to Home
Anyone who has ever gotten really lost knows the feeling of despair that can rise like overwhelming waves threatening to drag one under. To be without a home can easily make someone feel that despair of being lost.
But hope will always be there to combat despair. That hope can be found in the time, work, funds, and caring effort put forth by the many employees and volunteers of Habitat for Humanity McLean County.
By extending their hands to those in need, they have helped and will continue to help lift families from those overwhelming waves and place them in homes of hope.
Habitat for Humanity McLean County is located at 103 West Jefferson Street in Bloomington, Illinois. If you want to know how you can volunteer and help bring hope to a family in need, please contact us at (309) 827-3931 or visit us on the web at www.habitatmclean.org.