A Hand Up
Habitat for Humanity of Bucks County provides area residents with the support and opportunity to achieve the American dream of home ownership
by Leigh Stuart

“Habitat for Humanity is a hand up, not a hand-out,” explains Colleen Brink, volunteer and outreach director for the Bucks County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity.

For those familiar with the organization, this explanation may seem unnecessary; for others who are less versed in just what it is that Habitat does, that statement is an important one to make. In the words of Florence Kawoczka, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Bucks County (HFHBC), “We help people who just need a little hand up to be able to fly as sustainable homeowners.”

HFHBC was founded in 1990 to uphold the Habitat for Humanity International mission of providing affordable home ownership. The organization has continued to pursue this goal by helping individuals and families who might be “stuck in the rent trap,” as Brink explains, to leave behind a high-cost rental property that may be in a neighborhood plagued by crime or offering only underperforming schools.

Stefanie Clark, family program director for HFHBC, explains that in pursuit of the goal of affordable home ownership, HFHBC helps build or renovate a home for an individual or family who will take on a zero- or low-interest mortgage. That person or family becomes a true homeowner, paying taxes on the full value of the home. HFHBC works to provide homes of all sizes for families, from single-family detached homes to twins to condominiums.

“Home ownership is great for the homeowner but also the community,” observes Clark. “It brings value up across the board.”

The range of incomes for families who qualify for a Habitat home may be a surprise. A family of four, for example, can qualify for an HFHBC home if the combined household income is $65,000 or less. Homeowners must pass a credit and job history evaluation and must already live and work in Bucks County.

“Our families are people who help run the community; they are the maintenance guys at the hospital, secretaries and administrators, even a local bank branch manager,” Clark says. “The scope is much broader than people realize.”

Partner families are directly involved in the construction of their new homes, logging what HFHBC refers to as “sweat equity” hours. The idea is that in lieu of a large down payment, homeowners take an active role in the construction of their homes. Families invest anywhere from 100 to 375 hours of sweat equity.

“The homeowner is involved in practically every single step of the process,” Clark notes. “They are getting an affordability benefit but not without 100 percent partnership physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Even children can contribute sweat equity hours by earning good grades in school. This way, Brink explains, everyone involved has an investment in their future home.

“From my perspective, having been a former schoolteacher, housing really affects a child socially, emotionally and academically,” she says. “When a Habitat family gets placed in a secure housing situation, it changes the trajectory of the entire family in a much more positive direction.”

HFHBC pursues its mission through more initiatives than the homebuilding for which they are best known. Lesser-known efforts such as HFHBC’s annual “Hard Hats and High Heels” fundraising gala, the A Brush with Kindness initiative and the Habitat ReStore also support the organization’s overall mission.

The annual Hard Hats and High Heels gala, the next of which will be held in spring of 2016, features live and silent auction items as well as sponsored tables. “This is our signature event,” Kawoczka says. “We’ve had great attendance over the last couple of years and a successful auction thanks to our donors. When guests hear straight from one of our partner families about their Habitat experience, everyone feels committed to supporting the Habitat mission.”

Through A Brush with Kindness, HFHBC volunteers work to help keep people in their existing homes by offering exterior repairs or modifications to accommodate physical disabilities. “The goal of A Brush with Kindness is to keep homeowners safely in their homes,” says Brink. “Oftentimes an older person may be physically unable to make repairs to their own home and are struggling financially. We can repair a crumbling porch or stairs, or if someone now needs a wheelchair and their home is not wheelchair accessible, we can install a ramp.”

In line with the “hand up” philosophy, residents are charged on a sliding scale and are asked to pay what they can against the cost of the repairs. “We really wanted to make sure we were not only building but making people’s lives safer and decent again,” Clark says, adding that HFHBC hopes in the future to begin offering more critical repair work to the interiors of homes.

The HFHBC ReStore, an 18,000-square-foot retail space for gently used home goods, helps provide funding for HFHBC’s homebuilding initiatives while upholding an earth-friendly philosophy of reuse, repurpose and recycle. Individuals and local businesses can support the ReStore by donating funds to keep the ReStore truck fueled or by making tax-deductible donations of items including appliances, building materials, books, furniture, sports equipment, kitchen equipment, tools and other items for the home. People can also support the ReStore by volunteering to work shifts at the shop, which is located at 31 Oak Avenue in Chalfont.

HFHBC also benefits from the support of partner organizations. Groups of employees from companies such as Parx Casino, Merck & Co., Janssen Pharmaceuticals and First Federal of Bucks County, a community bank headquartered in Bristol, have signed up to help, as have members of local faith communities. On a larger scale, partners such as Toll Brothers have offered their expert building services. First Federal recently donated a plot of land upon which HFHBC’s 101st home will be built.

Volunteers are vital to supporting Habitat’s mission. Last year approximately 1,600 volunteers assisted HFHBC by donating more than 16,000 hours of volunteer service in not just building projects but through volunteer hours logged in all of HFHBC’s initiatives. Brink, who notes that 70 percent of Habitat homes are built with volunteer labor, describes volunteers as “the backbone of the organization.”

There is no set roster of qualifications a person must possess in order to volunteer, according to Brick. “We don’t hand-pick our volunteers,” she says. “If you have a heart for helping other people and if you’re willing to come out and volunteer your time … you do not have to have experience when you come to us. We can train you.”

Not all HFHBC volunteer opportunities are on build sites, however. The organization is happy to accept volunteers with talents in areas including writing, social media and administration.

“We need volunteer help, in the ReStore, in the office and on build sites,” Kawoczka says. “We need funding to pay for home building and repairs. We need items to sell at the ReStore to keep up with sustainable funding. We also need people to advocate for us. If you can’t give time, or funding, help us get the word out.”

As Brink says, “Everyone has a gift they can share with Habitat.”

Habitat for Humanity of Bucks County

Habitat for Humanity ReStore
31 Oak Ave.
Chalfont, PA 18914
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Donors can call 215-822-2708 to schedule free pick-up of items.

Photograph by Allure West Studios