Economy hampers Habitat for Humanity
The construction crew at 822 Cherry St. in Norristown was, to say the least, a bit unconventional. Eighteen-year-old Megan Donnelly, in yellow sneakers and blue nail polish, was gingerly hammering braces between floor beams. Helping her Wednesday was John Canty, a 61-year-old respiratory therapist from Temple Hospital who cited as his job qualifications homeownership and 39 years of marriage.
The construction crew at 822 Cherry St. in Norristown was, to say the least, a bit unconventional.
Eighteen-year-old Megan Donnelly, in yellow sneakers and blue nail polish, was gingerly hammering braces between floor beams. Helping her Wednesday was John Canty, a 61-year-old respiratory therapist from Temple Hospital who cited as his job qualifications homeownership and 39 years of marriage.
A floor above, high school senior Geliece Douglas was worrying she might dirty her new footwear, so she worked in her green-and-black-striped socks.
When labor comes free, you apparently cannot be picky.
Step by step, board by board, volunteers with the Montgomery County chapter of Habitat for Humanity were piecing together a new life for someone, who, without their help, might never own a home. It's meticulous, methodical work, made more difficult by an unforgiving economy and the vagaries of corporate America.
In a textbook case of Wall Street's effect on Main Street, this nonprofit Habitat chapter is struggling to make ends meet as the recession shrinks donations, and the acquisition of Wyeth by Pfizer threatens to eliminate a key supporter.
Habitat's staff had been hoping this year, its 21st, would be a milestone, producing the first $2 million budget. Now, the group hopes to see half that. It recently laid off two employees, leaving a staff of 11.
"We have had to cut back," said Marianne Lynch, director of development. "We lost a key individual donor and some foundation support. It is really hard to attract corporate funding."
The pending acquisition of Wyeth by Pfizer has been particularly worrisome. Wyeth employs 5,000 in Malvern and Collegeville. Last year, the firm provided daily stipends for 60 employees who volunteered with Habitat.
Lynch had even bigger plans for Wyeth. She pitched the pharmaceuticals firm on sponsoring a house under a program in which female crews rehab or build for a deserving woman.
"We thought they would be a good fit, given their concerns for women's health issues," Lynch said. The sponsorship is expensive, $90,000, but Lynch sensed interest.
Then the acquisition was announced. For the moment, it is clear nothing that ambitious will be undertaken.
Doug Petkus, a Wyeth spokesman, said the firm remained supportive, but given the acquisition by Pfizer, the level of future participation "is to be determined."
In the meantime, Habitat pushes ahead.
With 42 successful projects in its 20 years, it now completes about four homes a year. Many are rehabs, existing houses that must be stripped to virtual shells before being rebuilt from top to bottom.
The typical home takes about a year to complete and costs $150,000 if new, $130,000 if a rehab.
Potential homeowners must show a need and the financial ability to handle a mortgage to cover the cost of the construction. And they must put in 200 hours of their own labor - sweat equity.
"I like that people who are getting a house have to work on it," said Canty, explaining one of the reasons he enjoys being a Habitat volunteer. "It is not welfare."
Working alongside the homeowners-to-be also offers volunteers a firsthand appreciation of the impact of their generosity.
They find people like Ebony Kirtz, a 24-year-old day-care worker who lives with her mother but aspires to a more independent future for herself and her young son.
Kirtz was doing office chores Wednesday as she worked to fill her 200-hour quota. Over the months, she also has done more physical labor to prepare the house that she expects to be in by summer.
"I've painted, I've knocked down walls," she said. "It is hard work, but I enjoy it. I really liked the first time I swung a sledgehammer.
On the eve of homeownership, Kirtz said it still "feels like a dream."
"I walk past it every day," she said of her new home. "It is so pretty; I can't believe it's mine. I look at the backyard and think: 'I can put a little pool over there, a barbecue over there.' "
And she thinks of her 6-year-old son.
"I'm going to be able to give him a stable home," she said. "And more than that, an example, something to look up to. I want him to able to say, 'If my mom could do it, so can I.' "