Habitat for Humanity student chapter: Building monuments to civic engagement
Carol Jones owes her home to her own fortitude and a group of college students. In the mid-1990s, Jones was a single mother of two children working in retail and renting an old house in Bloomington. “It had termites. But it was affordable.”
A friend suggested she apply for a new home with the Habitat for Humanity of McLean County. Her first application was denied. She did, however, receive advice on how to improve her situation so she would qualify. She began taking classes at Heartland Community College and later landed a job in Illinois State’s Redbird Card Office, where she has worked for 19 years.
Then in 2001, the Illinois State University/Illinois Wesleyan University (ISU/IWU) Joint Habitat for Humanity Campus Chapter started building her a three-bedroom home on Humanity Lane, in a neighborhood with several other Habitat homes on Bloomington’s west side. Less than a year later, Jones had a safe place for her family to live. “I just love my home. I have neighbors that I can trust. I certainly don’t have termites.”
Since 1995, the ISU/IWU Habitat Chapter has built decent, safe, affordable houses for 87 local residents, including 53 children, across Bloomington-Normal. The latest example is going up at 904 Bryan Street in Normal, a mile west of the Quad. Last August during Welcome Week, the students began hammering together the walls for the new home. A few weeks later, the bottom floor was constructed, and the students were already erecting the second floor walls. By April, the volunteers plan to finish what will be the chapter’s 25th house.
It is a major achievement for a student organization that has become a leading light among Habitat for Humanity’s campus chapters. While many chapters build a new house once every two or three years, the ISU/IWU group has finished a new home every year for the last 24 years. In fact, one year the chapter built two houses. That is quite a feat considering the chapter has to raise half of the cost of each home, which runs to about $80,000.
“It’s a big deal for us,” said Zoe McGrath, the chapter’s current co-president at Illinois State. “We are very happy for this opportunity to build the community—literally.”
Hitting the quarter-century mark is just the latest highlight of the successful partnership between Illinois State, Illinois Wesleyan, and Habitat McLean County. In 2010, ISU/IWU Habitat was selected as the Habitat for Humanity Campus Chapter of the Year from among more than 500 campus chapters across the nation. Four years earlier, the student chapter and Habitat McLean County received the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership Award for Campus-Community Collaboration.
“It’s like any silver anniversary that marks a longtime commitment to a successful partnership,” said Michaelene Cox, associate professor of Politics and Government and the chapter’s current faculty advisor at Illinois State. “It represents an important watershed moment where I think the partnership between those parties has cemented.”
The student chapter’s efforts are needed more than ever. Last year, The Pantagraph published a series of stories on the local affordable housing crisis, noting the high rent and long waits for federal housing vouchers faced by low-income families. The Bloomington newspaper reported Habitat McLean County receives 100 applicants each year, though it has only the capacity to build about a half-dozen houses. A McLean County study mentioned in the series pointed out how there were subsidies for fewer than 1,500 of the estimated 8,000 family households who need help.
“We have a housing crisis in the United States and in our community,” said Associate Professor of Sociology Tom Gerschick, who served as the chapter’s faculty advisor at Illinois State for 10 years. “One of the things I love about Illinois State University—and we can go back to (President) Vic Boschini, we could go back to President Al Bowman, President (Larry) Dietz has been in lockstep with that vision—is that we have a responsibility for the community in which we reside.
“Habitat, on a weekly basis, restores my faith in humanity. You bring together people of disparate backgrounds, of different belief sets, because you have a common mission that is to provide your community with decent and affordable housing. I love that idea.”
Habitat for Humanity offers a helping hand, not a handout to the working poor. The families pay for their home through a 25-year, no interest mortgage. They are also required to put in 500 hours of their own labor into their house and other Habitat builds.
“The thing about Habitat is it’s about the houses,” Gerschick said. “It’s not about us.”
The student chapter began as an experiment, according to Illinois State Professor Emeritus of Technology Hank Campbell. By the early 1990s, students had been volunteering at local house builds for a few years. So, Habitat McLean County officials offered to provide materials and other support if Campbell, who then taught construction management courses, could organize a student chapter.
Campbell worked with Gary Klass, then a professor of Politics and Government, and Illinois Wesleyan officials to create ISU/IWU Habitat. The joint chapter is registered as separate student organizations on their respective campuses. The student organizations each have their own leadership and social media, but cooperate on fundraising and building each house. The joint chapter operates under the umbrella of Habitat McLean County, a Habitat for Humanity International affiliate that has built 180 houses since it was established in 1985.
“The real challenge was building the first couple of houses,” said Klass, the chapter’s current project leader and original faculty advisor at Illinois State. “We didn’t know what we were doing very well, but somehow we got it done. It’s been quite an accomplishment. We think we are the most successful (campus) chapter in the country. It’s been really amazing to see the students raise the money and organize the volunteers.”
Related Article: Professor Emeritus Gary Klass was recognized for his work with Habitat for Humanity.
Klass called Campbell the “brains” of the operation in those early years, due to his construction expertise. Several construction management students volunteered, as did students from several other majors. “We had good student volunteers. We got it together,” Campbell said.
Dedicated student volunteers have been at the core of what has made their chapter sustainable for the last three decades. One of those was Katie Buckley ’04, M.S. ’12, who received her bachelor’s degree in special education and her master’s degree in social work and is now a special education teacher in Le Roy. She was known as “Habitat Katie” and volunteered with ISU/IWU Habitat from 2001–2003, including a one-year term as chapter president.
Buckley said she developed important skills during her Habitat days, like learning how to advocate for the nonprofit and educate the community about the organization’s mission: “(Some community members) saw it as low-income housing. There is just a societal issue with people who just can’t afford housing and what they bring to the community—stereotyping.”
Buckley also learned how to spackle, install shingles and siding, and paint a house. “When they say student house, it really is a student house,” Buckley said. “It is a great opportunity to work on something that is bigger than yourself.”
Building a Habitat home is sort of like putting on a yearlong play. Except, instead of performing the entire play all in one night, it would be as if the theater directors had to stage a subsequent act each week with a different cast, some of whom have never acted before.
Volunteers meet at the home most Saturday mornings during the school year. The group can include Habitat McLean County crew, comprising experienced volunteers who supervise the construction; faculty advisors and project directors from the universities; the dozen or so student chapter executive board members; and a larger collection of student volunteers, some affiliated with campus organizations, who may come on-site only once. From these groups, anywhere from a handful of volunteers to up to 30-plus people with varying levels of skill show up on any given construction day.
“We have some people sticking from the beginning until the end, and we have people that come out once. And that is great because we are happy to have everybody,” said McGrath, a senior communications major.
Habitat veterans like Klass, who has participated in every ISU/IWU Habitat build, guide the novices on the basics of home construction, teaching them how to use power tools and properly hammer nails. Klass credits strong student leaders like McGrath and her co-president, Jade Surface, who are both building their fourth Habitat house, for the student chapter’s success and longevity.
“They’ve really taken over the organization. It’s incredible to work with them,” he said.
The students gain important leadership and team-building experiences through Habitat. “It is a hands-on form of civic engagement,” Cox said. “It’s fun. It’s not a dry and abstract endeavor.”
Surface and McGrath said the student chapter enjoys giving back to the community. “If someone wants to make an impact on the community, you don’t have to wait until you’re out of college. You can start doing that now,” said Surface, a senior biological sciences major. “You are a part of the community.”
Moreover, the students leave behind monuments to their hard work, as Illinois State President Larry Dietz noted during a groundbreaking ceremony last fall for the 25th house. “(Each house) is clear physical evidence of the time that they spent here, and their effort, their energy, their passion to do something for others. We are very proud of that.”
The most difficult part for any student-led Habitat build is not constructing the house; it is raising the money needed to buy the land and materials and hire contractors to do the electricity and other tasks requiring a skilled workforce. “The students have a hard time asking for money,” Gerschick said.
It has been especially difficult to find big donors. The ISU/IWU chapter has overcome this problem, in part, by organizing an innovative fundraising event called Trick or Treat for Change. Every Halloween for the last 15 or so years, hundreds of students have gone door-to-door throughout Bloomington-Normal soliciting donations. The student chapter has accomplished this through a successful partnership with, originally, the Illinois State University Dean of Students Office, and, now, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.
These small gifts add up: Trick or Treat for Change raises $10,000–$20,000 a year and has been so successful that it has become a model for campus chapters across the country. This year’s windfall was used to match a $10,000 grant from State Farm. The chapter combines this money with revenue drawn from current mortgages to fund its portion of ongoing Habitat construction.
The student chapter’s newest house will be home to the Yetimbi/Itukola family, immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have been renting an apartment while waiting three years for their Habitat home in Normal. Sandra Itukola; her husband, Nicolas Yetimbi; and their three children, ages 5 to 10, will be moving into the home on Bryan Street later this spring.
The house—three bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms—is on a small lot in a quiet neighborhood. The Town of Normal had condemned a home at that location and donated the land to Habitat McLean County. The county affiliate plans to build a second house on the site by 2020.
Sandra Itukola was out working on her house side-by-side with Illinois State students and other volunteers on a cold morning last October. A few weeks earlier, her family attended the groundbreaking, where they repeatedly thanked the students and Habitat for helping them. “I’m so happy. I say thank you for everything. And God bless (the students),” Sandra Itukola said.
The student chapter has built houses for immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala as well as for families coming from a variety of backgrounds in Bloomington-Normal. “We are a Christian ministry,” said Habitat McLean County Executive Director Jim Walters ’92, an Illinois State alumnus. “We believe everyone needs a decent, safe, affordable house and we are able to do that.”
Carol Jones has tried to give back over the years, by telling her story at Habitat events when called upon. She still cherishes her home and who built it alongside her family.
“I’m glad that I have a student house,” Jones said. “I can still make that connection with them 16 years later.”
How to volunteer
When: 8 a.m.–noon, Saturdays, September to April
Where: 904 Bryan Street in Normal (2018–2019 home)
Follow the ISU Habitat for Humanity organization on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
More information about Trick or Treat for Change can be found at CommunityEngagement.IllinoisState.edu.
Video of first build
Illinois State University’s TV-10 created the following video about the student chapter’s first Habitat for Humanity build.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.