Some people have a little trouble believing The Fuller Center for Housing’s partnership housing approach is for real.
They are expected to believe that volunteers out of the goodness of their hearts are willing to sacrifice their own time and money to work alongside them as they contribute sweat equity hours in the building of their homes, on which they will make affordable, zero-percent-interest mortgage payments—payments that will go into a Fund for Humanity to help others like them also become homeowners.
That all sounds a little hard to believe … until you experience it firsthand. Camilo Leal is one of millions of people whose lives have been changed by the affordable housing movement developed more than 40 years ago by Millard Fuller.
The Atlantic City, N.J., resident was more than a little skeptical when The Fuller Center approached him about helping his family repair their Superstorm Sandy-damaged home during last year’s Millard Fuller Legacy Build. He had dealt with his share of shysters and empty promises during the five months his wife and two children spent living with relatives far away from the home they loved.
But by the end of that week in 2013, he had gone from wondering “What’s the catch?” to wondering “How can I pay it forward?” He did just that by volunteering at the 2014 Legacy Build in Louisville last week. And he thinks he has finally figured out why Fuller Center volunteers do this work.
“It fills your chest, it fills your heart,” he said. “It makes you feel good to be with people who have a common goal to help. It’s making sure that everybody has the opportunity to call a place home.”
The Legacy Build in Louisville added another wrinkle that made this home ownership program a little hard to believe. In a town with thousands of boarded-up, vacant homes, The Fuller Center of Louisville is committed to turning them from eyesores to beautiful homes for families in need. Fuller Center volunteers came in and did just that with six homes last week.
Like Leal, Louisville resident Mark Singleton had some skepticism when The Fuller Center agreed to partner with him, wife Kendra and their three children on a project to turn a vacant property into a new home in the West End’s Shawnee neighborhood. But, also like Leal, by the end of the week his eyes had been opened.
“I didn’t realize how solid and honest the program would be,” he said. “You hear you’re gonna get a house, and you’re thinking it’s going to be cardboard walls. You envision a home that’s going to fall apart in the next two months. You don’t expect it to be a solid, good home that I can literally raise my wife and kids in for the next 30 or 40 years.”
Count Winnifred Hammond among the converts, as well. She has been raising three grandchildren in a $700-a-month rental home that sat next to a scary-looking vacant house that attracted drug addicts and others. At one point, vandals kicked in her own back door and stole more than $10,000 worth of merchandise. No one was happier to see The Fuller Center turn that vacant property around last week than she was.
“It just goes to show you that when everybody has teamwork and is on the same page, a lot can be accomplished,” she said on the final day of the build. “They took an eyesore cesspool and turned it into a beautiful home in just five days. I was wondering how you could fix it without tearing it down to the ground, but it’s starting to look like a house instead of looking like a disaster waiting to happen.”
Fuller Center volunteer Jim Tomascak was one of those who worked on the badly deteriorated River Park Drive house next door to Hammond. He said that while some may see these vacant houses as mere structures, they can sometimes personify the human experience.
“This house is like many of us,” he said during the home’s Friday dedication. “We’ve all had times in our life where they probably weren’t our shining-est moments, where we’ve been broken, where we’ve been rundown and it’s taken fellow believers that have come and helped us get back on the right track. Just like the rebuilding of our lives, we’ve rebuilt the life of this house.”
REBUILDING A NEIGHBORHOOD WITH HOPE
Vietnam veteran Larry Tyus remembers days in the West End that were far less vibrant than last week’s Legacy Build.
“If you had come into West Louisville five years ago, it was dead,” he said. “There was blight. People had nothing but a blank stare on their face. There was no hope. But as The Fuller Center has been working in this neighborhood, now it’s a neighborhood again and very vibrant. People sit out on their porch and stuff now. This is gonna really help. It fits in to the transformation program that they’ve got going here in Shawnee.”
Army veteran Conrad Bennett and wife Deborah agree that Fuller Center volunteers have built much more than homes in the West End of Louisville. They want it to be a better place for their 21 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“If you don’t really believe in humanity, all you’ve got to do is come down here and watch humanity at work,” Conrad said. “What these people have done is they’ve brought hope. It brings pride back into the community — not only pride in your own home but pride in the whole neighborhood. You have a sense of belonging.”
Like Hammond, J.J. Wickliffe lives next door to one of the Legacy Build projects on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard. The Bennetts will be his new neighbors.
“I think the program is really, really nice,” he said of Save a House/Make a Home initiative. “It’s helping out the neighborhood a whole lot. It’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. I’ve been here in the West End almost 30 years, and it’s doing a whole lot better than it was. The better housing, I think that’s one of the main reasons why.”
“It’s a good program because there’s a lot of vacant houses in the West End, and they don’t look good,” homeowner partner Kimberly Harrison said. “By getting those homes and making them affordable, it picks up the value and makes the neighborhood look better.”
Unlike others who may have had doubts as to whether volunteers could turn an eyesore into a decent home, Harrison was on board from the get-go when she and her seven children selected for a large home on Cecil Avenue.
“A home is what we needed,” she said. “We’ll have space in the backyard as well as in the house. When they said they were going to fix this house up, I was all the way with it.”
Homes in the West End are being repaired through The Fuller Center’s Save a House/Make a Home initiative, as well as other partnerships — including the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which awarded The Fuller Center $75,000 through its Revolving Loan Fund to help continue the progress in the area.
“With these funds, we will be able to create new, first-time homeowners who will in turn create neighborhoods of choice — safe and secure neighborhoods — where families can grow, prosper and contribute to a stronger community for all,” Fuller Center of Louisville Executive Director Steve Marrillia said. “We look forward to a long and successful partnership with the LAHTF creating homes and strengthening neighborhoods.”
In fact, as Legacy Build volunteers were heading back to their own homes Saturday, LAHTF supporters came out to volunteer with The Fuller Center in the Shawnee neighborhood as part of the Mayor’s Give A Day campaign.
Kim Roberts is the Executive Director of The Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project, which hosted the first Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Fuller’s hometown of Lanett, Alabama, in 2009. She volunteered to work on the Singletons’ home on South 41st Street.
“The parents are amazing, and they’re so appreciative,” she said. “This is why we come in and do these things to give somebody a hand up and not a handout. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for them. We hope that they take it and they run with it and they continue to better themselves. This is not a stopping point; this is just a starting point.”
It’s a starting point not just for the families but also for the entire West End.
“They caused places that looked like they were ruined and decimated to be rebuilt,” said the Rev. Derek Wilson, pastor of Spirit of Love Center and a member of The Fuller Center of Louisville’s board of directors. “On these blocks, those houses have become a beacon of change. The people had joy and had a mind to work. People have seen the influx of people coming into the community wanting to make a difference. We believe with all our heart that our community and our city has been impacted just because The Fuller Center made the decision to come and be a part of what was going on here in the city of Louisville. They helped to bring change and transformation.”
The Rev. Chet Johnson leads one of The Fuller Center’s newest covenant partners in Gary, Indiana. He came down to volunteer and witness a large build in action. The Fuller Center of Gary also plans to turn vacant houses into new homes and is planning a blitz build in August. He was impressed with the spirit of the volunteers.
“I don’t see just the physical work, but I see the passion within the person that causes them to physically work,” he said. “What makes it inspiring is the purpose. You’re talking about people who travel on their own time and their own money just to help somebody else. The joy of doing that is of a greater value to them than what they might be able to do with those funds if they did it for themselves. That’s where the heart of it is. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Wilson expects the work done during the Legacy Build to have a ripple effect that lasts for many years, the same way that the earlier work of the Fuller Center of Louisville already has had a similar effect.
“I believe that what The Fuller Center has done is having a rippling effect on other people and other churches and faith-based ministries to say ‘Look what they’ve done. They have started something. What now can we do to help continue to build on the legacy that they have left in our city,’” Wilson said.
The next Millard Fuller Legacy Build will be in Shreveport, Louisiana, in September of 2015. Next year’s Legacy Build will be part of The Fuller Center’s yearlong 10th anniversary celebration.
For now, though, everyone is still riding a high from a wonderful week in Louisville, including Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell.
“There are two basic measures of success for a Millard Fuller Legacy Build — did the work get done, and did the volunteers leave feeling blessed for the experience,” Snell said. “Five of the houses got finished, and the sixth — which wasn’t supposed to be done — got farther along than anyone expected.
“These builds are like giant family reunions with the old-timers getting back together and the newcomers joining the clan,” he added. “They’re a week of hard work and righteous fun, and Louisville was no exception. I imagine that this is what Jesus intended — people reaching out to help one another and having a great time in the process. What a blessing to be able to spend quality time in a noble effort with people who are kind and giving.”
Wilson said the week’s success is an example of why a Christian housing ministry can be so effective.
“It shows that when you have the unity of the body of Christ and you have people who have a mind to work that anything can get accomplished in such a small span of time,” he said.