September 2009

Poverty in Paradise: Habitat Builds Hope for Families in Need

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

Imagine living in a house or apartment with no toilet, no stove, no HVAC. Imagine crowding your whole family into one tiny bedroom. Imagine leaky roofs, moldy air, faulty electrical wiring and roach infestations. Imagine living out of your car or sleeping under a bridge. If you can’t imagine, or if you think these are third-world or inner-city problems, think again. Census numbers indicate that approximately 27 percent of Beaufort County residents live in substandard housing, and some have no place to call home.

According to Patricia Wirth, executive director of Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity, many of the people who provide the labor that makes Hilton Head Island a vacation/retirement paradise are living without the comforts and services most of us take for granted, yet some are paying as much as half of what they make just to keep a roof over their heads. “Obviously, no one chooses to live in a substandard house,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are in the unenviable position of having the highest house prices, but we don’t have the highest wages.”

How Habitat helps
Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit organization seeking to eliminate substandard housing and homelessness by building affordable houses for deserving families. Founded in 1976, it has built more than 300,000 homes worldwide, providing more than 1,000,000 people with safe, decent, affordable shelter. The Hilton Head Regional affiliate, founded in 1990, has built more than 80 houses in the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton, South Carolina area, providing affordable housing to over 300 people in need.

But Habitat is not in the business of handouts. “It’s a hand up,” said Wirth, explaining that applicants are carefully screened and are required to meet strict requirements, including willingness to put in “sweat equity” hours. Homeowners must complete 300+ hours of service before being sold a home, including 100 hours before the home is begun. Sweat equity hours are earned through construction, site preparation, community service, education, or supporting other Habitat activities. A Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity house is built at zero profit and Habitat goes on to hold the mortgages on the houses at zero percent interest.

Why you should care
Besides the fact that it is “the right thing to do,” there are many reasons why you should care, said Wirth, citing a typical case: a low-income single mom, paying $800 a month for an apartment, relying on food stamps to feed her family. “She’s in an apartment, which is an endless drain on her income. If you put her in a house here [a Habitat community], she’s paying less than $400 a month. Suddenly, she doesn’t need food stamps; her own feeling of self-worth is increased; she doesn’t have to work two jobs; she has more time for the kids. The whole thing kind of steamrolls.”

The ultimate goal is to end the cycle of poverty, Wirth continued, explaining that for families, especially those with a lower income, ownership is an important means of wealth accumulation. When a family’s monthly housing expenses are used to pay off a mortgage, that family accumulates wealth in the form of equity in their home which can be passed on to future generations. At the same time, homeowners become more responsible and productive employees, more loyal citizens and more effective parents. In turn, their children enjoy improved health, higher academic performance and a greater sense of self-esteem, which gives them a better opportunity to succeed in life.

“It’s such a good feeling when you’re there on the day of the dedication and you see the family,” said Wirth. “You work with the adults, because they have to put in their sweat equity, but you don’t always see the kids. That’s what it’s all about. Kids get to show people around their house—their room, so exciting, so important. It’s really a dream come true.”

How you can help
Hilton Head Regional Habitat is currently building on a tract of land in Ridgeland with a goal of finishing 10 houses within a year. “We always need donations, but we really need people who are willing to come out and build these houses and help get these families in them,” said volunteer coordinator, Lois Wilkinson, emphasizing that no special skills are necessary. “It’s on the job training.”

Volunteers agree that the work is rewarding. Ask Jim Fisher why he builds Habitat houses and he’ll tell you, “It’s less frustrating than playing golf.” But that isn’t the real reason. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of building and helping others learn how we build,” he said. “But the real satisfaction comes from knowing that I have helped give a lift to a deserving family. I go to bed at night thanking God for my blessings. I believe there are Habitat families doing the same, and I like to think I contributed to their comfort.”

“It’s a very worthwhile cause helping hard-working people in need take a major step toward their prosperity,” said Mike Rambo. “It gives me the satisfaction of accomplishment both in the construction and in being able to help someone who is trying to help themselves.”

Carolyn Cherwon agrees, adding that there is a social benefit, as well. “If you volunteer building houses, you meet great people and make new friends who give generously of their time and talents, and you experience wonderful fellowship,” she said. “You see your accomplishments each day as the house progresses and you go home a happy tired.”

“I found that I receive back so much more than I could ever offer,” said Kathy Emery. “Attending a house dedication after working alongside the homeowner, sharing the laughter and tears, is a profound joy.”

Habitat is looking for volunteers to build houses, but that’s not all. If you would like to volunteer but are not interested in joining the construction crew, there are many other opportunities for you to help, including ReStore sales, fundraising events, or as a board or committee member. If your busy schedule doesn’t permit you to volunteer, you can always make a donation or become a sponsor; all contributions are tax-deductible. Finding land is one of Habitat’s biggest challenges. If you know of any available property, contact Patricia Carey Wirth at For more information, visit or call (843) 757-5864.

Hit the Links for Habitat
On September 21, 2009, the Oldfield Club and SunTrust Bank will sponsor the 12th Annual Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity Golf Tournament. Don’t miss this opportunity to help build a better future.

Location: Oldfield Golf Club, Okatie, SC
Check-in: 10 a.m.
Shotgun Start: 11 a.m.
Includes: 18 Holes of Golf, Box Lunch, Gift, Beverages, Dinner & Silent Auction
Auction includes a trip for two to Pebble Beach, three rounds of golf, airfare and lodging (sponsored by Chatham Parkway Lexus, Lexus Champions for Charity).

Corporate Sponsorship: $1000 (includes four players)
Team Sponsorship: $600 (includes four players)
Individual Player: $150
Hole Sponsorship: $150

For information, contact Laurette Doscher (843) 342-8002 or e-mail

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