SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “hand-up”

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “hand-up”

(Photo: Ana Tarazona Ramos of La Florida, Peru, partnered with us to build a new home and even came to America in 2011 to help build homes at the Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Minden, Louisiana. She since has become mayor of her community.)

This is the second in a series of blog posts about terms that define how The Fuller Center for Housing works to help families have simple, decent places to live. On Friday, we’ll take a look at the meaning of “ecumenical.”


If I had a nickel for every charity or nonprofit that claims to give “a hand-up instead of a handout,” I’d be a wealthy man — and I’d donate a lot of those nickels to a nonprofit that actually does provide a hand-up instead of a handout.

The phrase “hand-up instead of a handout” too often has meant nothing and has become rather cliché — and that’s a shame because it’s at the very heart of what we do at The Fuller Center for Housing.

Many people mistakenly believe Fuller Center homeowners are given houses or given repairs for free. They’ll leave comments on our social media pages such as, “I wish somebody would give me a house!”

That’s not how it works. For new houses, homeowner partners must be working hard to provide for themselves even if they fall just short of what they need to qualify for traditional lending from banks. They must perform hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” in the building of their homes and then repay the costs of materials, over time, with zero interest charged on mortgage terms they can afford. This allows them to pay it forward as the money goes into a Fund for Humanity to help others in their local community get the same hand-up.

For smaller repair projects, there is the Greater Blessing program. There is no mortgage involved in repaying the costs of repairs, but homeowners are asked to contribute “sweat equity” alongside our volunteers and are asked to repay the costs as they are able. For many of the seniors and disabled with whom we work, this may mean just a few dollars at a time. We find that even though they aren’t legally required to repay the costs, they want to. Perhaps that’s out of pure gratitude, a sense of pride, or a combination of the two.

When you truly extend a hand-up instead of a handout, the recipient of the help is able to retain their pride and their dignity. They appreciate the opportunity they have been extended because they have to work for it and repay it. Because their repayments help others, they become givers themselves instead of charity cases. It’s what we call “enlightened charity.”

That hand-up can even lift the recipient far beyond the home itself. One of the best examples of this is Ana Tarazona Ramos in Peru. She struggled daily to get by on the streets of Lima, moving from rented room to rented room with her three young children at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. She often wondered where their next meal would come from as selling school supplies on the streets did not provide an adequate living.

Then she heard about The Fuller Center’s growing community in La Florida. She hopped a bus in desperation and wound up partnering with us to build a home for her family. She was so grateful for the hand-up that she even came to America in 2011 to help others build homes at the Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Minden, Louisiana. With her children having a stable life and excelling in school, she felt empowered and rediscovered herself. She would go on to be elected mayor of La Florida.

I heard her tell her story directly to our Board of Directors during that Legacy Build. She fought through tears of joy and gratitude to explain how the hand-up changed her life and why she came to the U.S. to pay it forward. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

My friend Thad Harris, meanwhile, epitomizes what a hand-up can do perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever met. Years after being paralyzed in a traffic accident that cost him his livelihood as a construction worker and sent him spiraling into a depression, he partnered with The Fuller Center to build a new home in Americus, Georgia, a few miles from our headquarters.

Thad Harris

Not only did Thad perform hundreds of hours more than his required sweat equity from his wheelchair, but he has since become one of our most prolific volunteers with the local covenant partner, of which he also is a board member. On top of his usual volunteering, he spends weeks each year leading U.S. Builders teams who come to work in Americus. Thad’s smiling face is the main thing they remember about their trips here.

Also, Thad comes by our headquarters office at least once a week to see how things are going, ask if there is anything he can do and to say, “Thank you for what you’re doing.”

“Thad,” I told him last week, “you don’t have to keep thanking us. We appreciate it, but you’ve paid it forward many, many times over.”

“I’m just so thankful,” he said. “I just want you to know you’re appreciated.”

There is a time and a place for handouts, such as in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. But, too often, handouts are diminishing and counter-productive. When we first began working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, we found a culture of dependency that had been created and exacerbated by decades of well-meaning handouts from the United States. We can’t change the entire culture of dependency, but in the areas where we’ve built more than 200 permanent homes, our homeowner partners have been our co-workers instead of charity cases. They are proud of their accomplishments. And they set an example for the Haitian people around them that shows how empowering a hand-up can be.

Everywhere we work, there is a sense of accomplishment at the end of a project — and it is one shared by everyone who contributes, including the homeowners. Instead of someone saying, “Look what we did for you,” we are saying, “Look what we have done together.”

When you support The Fuller Center for Housing, you are truly extending an empowering hand-up instead of a diminishing handout. For that, to echo Thad’s sentiments to us, we are so thankful and want you to know you are appreciated.

President David Snell explains why we don’t do handouts in this short video:

200th Fuller Center home in Haiti home exemplifies what makes this ministry work

200th Fuller Center home in Haiti home exemplifies what makes this ministry work

(Photo: A local laborer puts the finished touches on the 38th Fuller Center home in Pigñon, Haiti — the first paid for entirely with repayments by previous partner families in the community.)

If I had a nickel for every time I saw a comment like “I wish The Fuller Center would give me a house,” well, I’d have at least $1.85. Of course, I’ve only worked in this ministry for six years. Those who’ve been here longer likely would boast a lot more in their piggy banks.

My first reaction when I see a comment like that on a social media post about the dedication or completion of another Fuller Center for Housing home — here in the United States or abroad — is frustration. However, I have to remind myself that it’s a great opportunity to educate someone who is obviously unfamiliar with the grass-roots principles behind this ministry.

Of course, The Fuller Center does not give away houses. Families build in partnership with us. They commit sweat equity in the building of their homes (often alongside volunteers but also with local laborers) and pay back the building costs on terms they can afford, over time, with no interest charged and no profit made.

Here is the simple concept that truly makes this ministry succeed and grow in each location: Families truly pay it forward as their repayments go into a Fund for Humanity that stay in the community and help their neighbors in need get the very same kind of hand-up into better living conditions. The families, therefore, are not charity cases but are transformed into givers themselves. This empowers families in ways that handouts cannot.

Those who’ve been involved with this ministry are familiar with such pay-it-forward concepts our founder Millard Fuller developed based on partnership principles he learned from theologian Clarence Jordan at historic Koinonia Farm in the 1960s. To newcomers, however — such as those who stumble across a story about The Fuller Center and jump to the conclusion that we give away houses — this is new information.

“One of the blessings that the Fuller Center model offers the poor is the opportunity it gives for them to be more than just recipients of goodwill but donors, as well.” — Fuller Center President David Snell

And it’s a concept they like and embrace. For those who hate handouts, they like that this is a hand-up instead. For those who are unconditionally dedicated to helping the poor, they like that families are empowered to help themselves and break the generational cycle of poverty.

There’s a reason why The Fuller Center is supported by those on the far right, the extreme left and all points in between: Because no one is against helping people help themselves!

The Fund for Humanity concept means that the more Fuller Center homes a community builds, the more it can build. This means that our supporters’ contributions don’t go toward just one house but many. Gifts are recycled, and home-building becomes a rolling snowball, growing along the way.

“One of the blessings that the Fuller Center model offers the poor is the opportunity it gives for them to be more than just recipients of goodwill but donors, as well,” Fuller Center President David Snell says. “And one of the blessings our model gives the rich is that the money they give is multiplied so that they’re not just giving for a single house to be built but for many. This all happens through the Fund for Humanity.  Both the donor dollars and the homeowners mortgage payments go into this fund which is used to build more and more houses.”

More to this milestone in Haiti

The 200th Fuller Center home in Haiti — made possible by volunteers, local workers and supporters like you — is a milestone for that number alone. But there’s more to it. Our 200th Fuller Center home in the country is the 38th in the community of Pigñon, far away from the earthquake-damaged zone where we first began working in 2010.

This 38th home is entirely funded by repayments made by the partner families of the previous 37 homes in Pigñon. These repayments will fund more homes, and when these repayments are coupled with donations by people like you the success multiplies exponentially.

A few of the houses built in Pigñon this year.

As our Director of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola noted, there’s always more to every milestone number.

“With the large family sizes in Haiti, that’s over a thousand people spending every night in a dry, safe and permanent Fuller Center home,” he said. “After the earthquake struck, it was such a struggle even to build the first one. Now at 200, they seem to roll one after another, using volunteers and employing local Haitians.”

“But the best part, the very best part, is that we now have a program that others said couldn’t be done — where Haitians fund the homes of other Haitians,” he added of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, where decades of well-meaning handouts have exacerbated the country’s problems and helped foster a culture of dependency. “The Biblical model of a no-profit, no-interest loan is incredibly powerful and empowering, and we’re thrilled that Pigñon has embraced it. But this is no time to stop or slow down. Haiti badly needs homes and partners.”

There indeed is more work to be done in Haiti. And Nicaragua. And Nepal. And Lanett, Alabama. And Louisville, Kentucky. But in these places and dozens more across the United States and around the world, the grass-roots principles of partnership housing have taken root and allowing the pay-it-forward model to flourish.

We will never stray from those simple principles with which Millard was so inspired more than four decades ago. And we will stay true to those principles for the simplest reason:

Because they work!



Fuller Center President David Snell explains why The Fuller Center for Housing does not give houses away:



Homeowner partners embrace opportunity to pay it forward after receiving hand-up

Homeowner partners embrace opportunity to pay it forward after receiving hand-up

(This is part of a regular series of blog posts related to The Fuller Center’s #MoreSmilesFewerShacks 2016 year-end campaign.)


Perhaps no word is more important in the lexicon of The Fuller Center for Housing than that word, partnership. It’s not just a word bandied about with no real meaning — it’s the very essence of how The Fuller Center helps families with an empowering hand-up.

Our homeowner partners work alongside our volunteers, contributing sweat equity in the building and repairing of houses. We’ve had wheelchair-bound, blind, deaf and elderly all put in more than their expected share of sweat equity on job sites. In instances where someone may be physically incapable of sweat equity, their family puts in the hours. By contributing sweat equity, our homeowner partners retain their pride and an enhanced feeling of ownership.

They also are expected to pay it forward, literally. Those who build new homes in partnership with us repay the costs of the work on terms they can afford, over time, with no interest charged and no profit made. Even with insurance and property taxes factored into their payments, it’s usually hundreds less than an amount for which they could rent a substandard apartment — or sometimes, even a room! And, those payments go into a Fund for Humanity to help others in their local community get the same kind of hand-up into decent housing. This recycles the generosity that begat the initial project, and it transforms the homeowner partners into givers themselves.

Those are the expectations. However, what we see from most Fuller Center homeowners is a commitment that goes above and beyond what is merely expected. They don’t pay it forward out of guilt — they do it out of the pure joy of giving back. They’ve seen both sides of giving and receiving and learned that the Greater Blessing as promised in the Bible — that it is more blessed to give — is absolutely true.

What we see from most Fuller Center homeowners is a commitment that goes above and beyond what is merely expected. They don’t pay it forward out of guilt — they do it out of the pure joy of giving back.

Our twice-yearly newsletter went out to many of you last month. Mainly, it’s simply a communications tool, a way to update folks on the good work going on across the U.S. and around the world. Naturally, for those so inclined, there is a response envelope for those wishing to donate to the cause. Over the years, we’ve received everything from a nickel to checks for thousands of dollars in those envelopes. Once again. we received a gift from Celeste Allen of Shreveport, La.

Celeste Allen

Celeste Allen

Ms. Allen was one of our first homeowners, partnering with us 10 years ago in Shreveport’s Allendale neighborhood, an area once so blighted that local authorities warned us not to work there. Dozens of Fuller Center homes later, it’s now an area of choice for families. Few are happier to see the neighborhood thrive than is Ms. Allen, who may not be rich but has a wealth of generosity and good will.

“Well, now, Allendale has one of the lowest crime rates in the city,” she said. “And our neighbors, we’re not just neighbors; we’re a family of people here. We look out for one another and we help one another.”

Some pay it forward with labor. When I first met Camilo Leal at the 2013 Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Atlantic City, N.J., he didn’t know what to think of all the volunteers who traveled from all parts of the country to help his family — and more than 20 others — repair their homes after SuperStorm Sandy. As one of the many residents who had been completely overlooked and forgotten in disaster assistance of previous months, he wondered what the “catch” was. By the end of the week, he understood why they had come and was in tears.

At the last three Millard Fuller Legacy Builds in Louisville, Ky., Shreveport, La., and Valley, Ala., Camilo was there, using his precious vacation time and paying his own way to help others in the same way those volunteers had helped his family. He wears his emotions on his sleeve with a constantly beaming smile interrupted by occasional tears of joy and gratitude.

Camilo Leal

Camilo Leal

“I think the emotion is the same,” Camilo told me in Louisville of what he felt while receiving help and then what he felt in helping others. “It fills your chest, it fills your heart. It feels good to be with people who have a common goal that is helping, making sure that everyone has the opportunity to call a place home.”

Thad Harris, meanwhile, is an all-of-the-above kind of guy. He’s a Fuller Center homeowner partner, a supporter, a local board member, a spokesperson and a construction leader for teams of U.S. Builders who come to work with the Americus-Sumter Fuller Center for Housing. Requiring Thad to perform 350 sweat equity hours from his wheelchair might seem onerous to some, but Thad embraced the opportunity, which he says “woke something up” inside of him.

“Something inside of me thought I wasn’t good enough, that I was inadequate,” Thad once told me. “But after I got the house, it took me to another level in life. It gave me self-esteem. I’m just normal now. And I’m grateful. But it wouldn’t be achievable if not for The Fuller Center.”

We are thankful for everyone who supports this ministry, but we are especially thankful for those who accepted a hand-up in partnership, then paid it forward above and beyond expectations. At some point, Ms. Allen, Camilo and Thad were looked upon by others as charity cases. When we extended a hand in partnership, we discovered inspiring, giving people.

If those three folks are “charity cases,” the world could use a lot more of them.


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Thad Harris, with a group of U.S. Builders from The Ohio State University.

Thad Harris, with a group of U.S. Builders from The Ohio State University.



RELATED VIDEO: Camilo Leal talks about paying it forward at the 2014 Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Louisville: