Finding Gratitude With A Hand-Up

“Our very own mailbox!” For many children, the thought of getting the mail is considered a chore. But for the kids in the Van Lo family of Hull, IA, this simple metal box symbolizes so much more. 

When the family moved into their new Siouxland Habitat for Humanity home in June 2019, the first thing the older three of the four kids did, after jumping out of the car, was to run to the mailbox and peek inside to see if they had any mail.

The Van Lo family is one of dozens of Siouxland families that have partnered with Habitat for Humanity to bring people, families and communities together. “It was an amazing journey that we experienced. We had the opportunity to meet so many great people. Being part of Siouxland Habitat for Humanity is not only about building a house. It’s also about building a new family with them,” says the Van Lo family.

Siouxland Habitat for Humanity is a non-denominational, ecumenical Christian ministry. The nonprofit organization has been helping make dreams a reality for families living in substandard housing in the Siouxland area. “Our goal is simple. We believe everyone deserves a safe, decent, and affordable home that includes a roof that doesn’t leak, a climate system that brings warmth in the winter and cooling in the dog days of summer. It is a place where mold doesn’t grow on walls and where everyone in the family has adequate space. It’s where the mortgage is manageable and the American dream of homeownership shines brightly,” says Fred Hexom, Siouxland Habitat for Humanity Executive Director.

Habitat partners with families that are US citizens or legal resident aliens or are first-time homebuyers who cannot qualify for a conventional home loan. They also need to have lived in Siouxland for at least a year, and are in need of housing. Significantly, the partner family must be willing to help build the home, with help from Habitat’s construction manager and volunteers. “The partner family must put in 500 hours of what we call “sweat equity”. We also receive building material donations and volunteer labor, so together all of those factors help keep the cost down,” says Hexom. 

“Charity often means writing a check or purchasing an item from an organization and hoping that your gift goes to a worthy cause. Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity is different. Not only do we venture outside of our comfort zone to do actual construction work, we often get to work side-by-side with the future homeowners and see the gratitude in their faces as we help their dreams become reality. And we are grateful for that opportunity,” say Beth Grigsby and Bev Wharton, two members of a group that regularly volunteers in Sioux City. 

When a house in completed and the new family moves in, the life-changing work of Siouxland Habitat for Humanity isn’t over. “When the home is finished, Habitat turn into a bank of sorts, providing an affordable, no-interest mortgage that our partner family pays back over time. Because of the sweat equity and mortgage requirements, we like to say that we are a ‘hand-up,’ not a ‘hand-out’,” says Hexom. There are minimum and maximum income restrictions for the families as well “We have these income restrictions to confirm and ensure that we are serving people in need, but to also make sure they will be able to repay the mortgage loan,” he adds.

The cost of living for urban consumers in America rose 1.7 percent between September 2018 and September 2019 according to an analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. “The rising cost of living affects all of us, but while those with a larger paycheck may need to scale back on luxuries, for lower-income folks, it’s the necessities, like decent shelter, that sometimes get the ax. Habitat steps in to fill this gap with a house that might otherwise be unattainable,” says Hexom.

In 2010, Kemi Brown was chosen to be a partner family with Habitat. She reflects on how Habitat has since changed her life. “I know without a doubt that God moved and touched the hearts and minds of the members of this amazing organization. I will be eternally thankful for the selfless volunteers, friends and family who opened their hearts and gave their time as God graciously opened the doors to enjoy the blessing of home ownership through our collective hard work, sacrifice, commitment and dedication. We continue to reap the blessings of this wonderful opportunity and hope to be a light to others that will be chosen to share this amazing gift in the years to come,” says Brown.

Building houses, even with partial volunteer labor and some donated materials, is not cheap. A key way Habitat raises funds is through its ReStore. The ReStore is a home improvement store where individuals, contractors, and businesses donate new and gently used supplies and materials. The public can buy these materials for a fraction of the retail cost. 

Many people today are discovering, or rediscovering, the joy of giving back, and being a part of something greater than themselves. “The great news about Habitat is that there are so many ways to help. There is something for everyone. Monetary donations and volunteers are always appreciated! We welcome individuals, church groups, businesses, service clubs and groups of friends to form a team and come out to help. It’s an amazing feeling knowing you’re helping a local family. Our need for volunteers includes everyone from those that have never picked up a hammer (but want to learn) to seasoned construction pros,” says Hexom. As a news story from WSMV.com (Nashville, TN) recently put it in covering the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Habitat for Humanity Work Project: “If you’re a dunce with a drill, feel like a hack with a hammer or a nit-wit around a nail gun, don’t let that scare you from a Habitat for Humanity build site.” 

To visit the ReStore, donate or volunteer, visit siouxlandhabitat.org, stop by the office at 1150 Tri View Avenue in Sioux City or call 712-224-6133 ext. 3. 

“This time of year, we think about gratitude often. And it is an appropriate theme for Habitat for Humanity. Certainly, the partner families are grateful when they move into their wonderful new home. But gratitude is often a two-way street.” 

“Those that volunteer to help build Habitat homes and those that provide financial support often experience a warm sense of gratefulness as they are blessed by their ability to bless others.” – Fred Hexom

“Few things carry more weight in the quality of our lives than our home. It’s what we may remember most about our childhood, and our present living situation can shape our outlook on our life today. What an honor for us to make a tremendously positive difference for a family,” says Hexom.  

Habitat for Humanity International co-founder Linda Fuller summarizes what the organization means to those it serves: “To families in seemingly impossible situations, Habitat for Humanity becomes a friend and partner. And, by their own labor and with God’s grace, they become owners of a decent home.”

Written by staff of Siouxland Habitat for Humanity. Siouxland Habitat for Humanity serves Woodbury, Plymouth, Sioux, Dakota, and Union counties. The non-profit organization has completed 65 homes since its inception in 1992, and is currently building in Sioux City, North Sioux City, and Orange City.