Campus & Community

Alleviating poverty one house at a time

3 min read

Habitat for Humanity helps people buy homes

This is the second in a series of Gazette articles highlighting some of the many initiatives and charities that Harvard affiliates can support through this month’s Community Gifts Through Harvard Campaign.

Helene Nguyen ’05-’06 and Anthony Lee ’06 are co-directors of Harvard Habitat for Humanity. Says Nguyen, ‘Life isn’t just about being at Harvard and going to school, day-in and day-out. It’s good to take a step back and realize that there are much bigger things out there.’ (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Harvard’s Community Gifts Campaign is a great way for Harvard employees to help Boston-area (and other) families build and own their own homes.

Established in 1989, Harvard Habitat for Humanity has helped to construct numerous houses. The group sponsors weekend trips during the school year to local sites such as Cape Ann or the south shore; spring break trips to farther locations like New Orleans or Botswana; and a local summer program.

“We’re a campus chapter under the umbrella organization of Habitat for Humanity International, which seeks to alleviate poverty one house at a time” said Helene Nguyen ’06, co-director of Harvard Habitat for Humanity. The houses are not handouts, but are sold to owners at cost with an interest-free mortgage. Prospective owners must pass a screening process that includes an assessment not only of their ability to pay the mortgage, but also of their ability to work on the house. Each owner must invest hours of sweat equity into their homes.

Harvard Habitat for Humanity brings together student volunteers to help with construction. On a recent weekend (Nov. 5) a group of nine students traveled to Cape Ann to work on a house: “We installed half the flooring, primed the whole house, and even got started on the color coat,” said Nguyen.

And because the owners are also there, it provides opportunities to form relationships. “You’re working in the same house with the owners and it’s amazing to see them care so much about their house. It represents so much more than just a shelter, it’s an accomplishment, a symbol of stability,” said Nguyen.

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In addition to the almost weekly local trips taken by the group, they are planning to send a student contingent to Jackson, Miss., to help build homes in that hurricane-ravaged area over the winter break. And they’re organizing a spring break trip to Botswana: “International work is different,” said Nguyen, who visited the Honduras with a group of Harvard students during last year’s spring break. “The experience is much more intense – not only do you have to cope with being in a foreign country, a different culture, and a different language, but the families are often much more impoverished.”

According to Nguyen, the perspective gained from her work with Harvard Habitat for Humanity is invaluable: “Life isn’t just about being at Harvard and going to school, day-in and day-out. It’s good to take a step back and realize that there are much bigger things out there.”

Harvard Habitat for Humanity operates under the umbrella of the Phillips Brooks House Association, which is “a great support network and resource for us,” said Nguyen. All of Harvard Habitat for Humanity’s accounting is done by PBHA, the group’s local travel is handled by PBHA vans, and PBHA provides advice and adult mentors.

Funds donated to Harvard Habitat for Humanity are used to pay for travel expenses for the group’s trips, as well as for donations to the Habitat for Humanity affiliates that are sponsoring each building site.