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Habitat for Humanity builds better lives

There is something unusual about the cubicles in the offices of the Hillsboro-based Willamette West Habitat for Humanity, and it’s not just that every cubicle seems organized and tidy. What is striking is the many notes of gratitude posted on the walls of those cubicles.

The notes are compelling.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Longtime Habitat for Humanity volunteer Marc Altman prepares a nailgun for the task of framing a new porch.

“As a single parent in poor health, I could not afford to buy a house and I had lost hope,” read one message, from a woman identified only as Vunarra. “Now I feel blessed. Habitat for Humanity will build our stable house, which we can call ‘our sweet home.’ I believe my daughter will be doing better at school and will have a bright future.”

Hope Howard, development and communication manager for Willamette West Habitat for Humanity, pointed out that the organization sometimes refrains from using full names publicly to protect the privacy of families involved in the programs. And there are good reasons why some Habitat families want to maintain their privacy.

For example, Vunarra was 22 and studying to be a doctor in her native Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over her country.

“She survived the killing fields, but was injured in a bomb explosion and eventually was able to immigrate to the United States,” Howard explained. “Her daughter learned about Willamette West Habitat for Humanity from a teacher at Sunset High School. She is now a student at Portland State University and hopes to fulfill her mother’s dreams and become a doctor herself.”

As Vunarra’s story indicates, the houses Habitat builds are very personal to the homeowners, and they are making a big difference in people’s lives.

Brandee Roberts, a 35-year-old cashier at Fred Meyer, moved into her new Habitat home in early November with her 14-year-old daughter.

“The future isn’t as uncertain,” said Roberts. “I’m able to make my mortgage, and now I don’t worry.”

The single mother helped build her home, which gave her a sense of empowerment. Combined with the relatively low cost of her new home, the assistance from Habitat for Humanity changed her world.

“I take pride in home ownership,” said Roberts. “I was so involved; it’s so educational.”

Thanks to donated materials, volunteer labor and generous financial gifts, Habitat for Humanity is able to offer homes to qualifying families at a zero-percent interest rate mortgage and monthly payments structured to their incomes. Families also contribute a minimum of 500 hours of “sweat equity,” in which they help to build homes for themselves or for other Habitat families.

Families around the Hillsboro area aren’t the only ones getting a new home. The West Willamette Habitat for Humanity itself has now settled in to a permanent home, at 5293 N.E. Elam Young Parkway.

“This is our 25th year in Hillsboro. We’ve built 35 homes and made Hillsboro our permanent home,” Willamette West Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Mark Forker told members of the Hillsboro City Council at the council’s June 4 meeting. “We’re thankful to the city, and we love it.”

The sentiment is apparently mutual.

“Habitat for Humanity has been a great development partner, building quality housing for entry-level families,” said Hillsboro Public Affairs Manager Patrick Preston.

Willamette West Habitat for Humanity bought the headquarters last year.

“When the economy crashed and our lease was running out, it made perfect sense,” Forker said.

Through the back door of the office building is a 3,000 square foot warehouse that has a high ceiling and a well-organized place for bulk paint purchases, insulation, gardening tools and other building supplies. Before the warehouse became available, staffers had to lock their supplies in unfinished houses to protect from theft. The warehouse not only provides volunteers with a safe place to store their tools, it also offers enough space to practice a variety of building techniques. That can be vital, especially in the winter months.

With an average of 113 volunteers assisting the Willamette West Habitat for Humanity every year, having an efficient space becomes essential to keeping operations organized.

Forker noted that the best part about Habitat’s new 2,000 square foot facility is that the organization owns it. By owning the facility, Forker said, the local Habitat chapter will save about $30,000 a year, which over time works out to be the equivalent of the cost of building 30 additional homes. And the stability of having a permanent headquarters also allows the organization to build unlike they have before.

On average, West Willamette Habitat for Humanity has built between three to eight houses and extensively refurbished another house or two each year.

“Our goal is to eliminate substandard housing,” Forker explained. “Habitat for Humanity is good for the economy, for neighbors and good for schools.”

Habitat is currently working on eight lots in the Hillsboro area, but a ninth lot — which is larger than the others — sparked an approach the local Habitat affiliate had not attempted before: To build an accessible home that meets requirements of the Americans with Disability Act. Now, for the first time, Willamette West Habitat for Humanity is searching for an individual or family with a disability.

“We want to plan a house around their needs,” said Erin Maxey, homeowner services manager. “It’s a special selection for a specific group, but they’re an under-served class in Washington County, so making a special effort to serve them is OK. There are some really compelling stories by focusing on helping those with the most need.”



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