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Tuesday July 22nd 2014

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AmeriCorps Comes to Help With Hammers

Habitat for Humanity’s new initiative revitalizes Pensacola neighborhoods
By Jessica Forbes

If all goes according to plan for many AmeriCorps members, a week of work that ended on a hot afternoon in Pensacola will be the beginning of a lifetime of community service.

The end of that week is also expected to be the beginning of a new program for the Pensacola Habitat for Humanity affiliate that is already bringing residents and partners together to revitalize existing neighborhoods.

From June 3-7, over 80 AmeriCorps members serving in Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) affiliates across the country came to Pensacola to perform a variety of tasks in the Westside Garden District Neighborhood.

The AmeriCorps crews poured over 23 yards of concrete during sidewalk repairs, cleared 70 vacant lots, cleaned right-of-ways on 20 streets, rehabbed four homes, and painted street addresses on curbs in the project area. They assisted the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery Foundation with painting the cemetery’s gatehouse and began the enormous task of photographing and cataloging its 15,000 monuments and headstones.

“There is stuff we got started this week that we didn’t finish, so we know it will continue,” said Pensacola Habitat’s Executive Director Tim Evans after the event’s closing ceremony. “We got a lot of work done, but there’s still a lot to go—this was a great kick start to get things moving.”

Community Improvement

Pensacola was one of five U.S. locations selected for an AmeriCorps-Habitat for Humanity Build-a-Thon in 2013, the third year in a row for the Pensacola HFHI affiliate. Unlike previous Build-a-Thons, the 2013 event did not focus on new home construction, but instead aimed at a number of community improvement projects.

Sponsored by the Pensacola Association of Realtors, the event marked the beginning of the Pensacola Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) in which Habitat works with residents and local partners, receiving community input as to what neighborhood residents would like to see improved.

NRI has been a formal initiative of HFHI for four years, but as Evans explained, neighborhood revitalization goes to the heart of HFHI’s founding principles.

“Thirty years ago, that’s where most affiliates began, because they couldn’t afford [to build] a new house,” said Evans. “So you go into a neighborhood and clean up, build an accessibility ramp, re-roof someone’s home, because that’s the resources you have. They just didn’t have a name for that. So now it’s come full circle, where the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative is a new name for the oldest work that Habitat has done.”

The Westside Garden District Neighborhood, bounded by Cervantes and Garden streets, A Street and Pace Boulevard, was formerly known as Westside Sunshine and St. John’s Coalition. Habitat had several meetings with community members and the newly organized neighborhood association, which will hold its first elections later this month.

Dianne Robinson has been working with the Westside Garden District Neighborhood Association preparing for the Build-a-Thon. Robinson, who was born and raised on the corner of B and LaRua streets, returned to Pensacola nine months ago having lived elsewhere for 47 years.

“I came back and saw that the neighborhood needed a revitalization,” said Robinson, who lived in and served as a city councilwoman in Bremerton, Wash. Now retired, Robinson says community work “…is normal to me, this is something I love doing, and I want to bring the neighborhood back up.”

Natalie Shearlock, director of community engagement at the Pensacola Habitat for Humanity said that in the NRI, “We’re trying to work in defined communities, so that when we’re done with the work we’re doing there is a group there to keep it up, keep it going.”

Domestic Peace Corps

Approximately 20 local HFHI volunteers and neighborhood residents joined the AmeriCorps members on the ground for a total of over 100 people working on the various Build-a-Thon projects.

AmeriCorps is a national community service organization that places recent college graduates with partner organizations, Habitat for Humanity International being one.

Since 1994, over 7,000 AmeriCorps members have served with HFHI, which was founded in 1976. HFHI is a nonprofit Christian housing organization that to date has facilitated the construction of over 750,000 homes worldwide.

Sometimes referred to as “the domestic Peace Corps,” AmeriCorps service terms typically last between 10 months and one year.

“The Build-a-Thon is near the end of a service term, which typically starts in August or September each year, so it is one of the culminating events of their service,” Graham Green, Operations Senior Specialist for HFHI explained. “It’s really an opportunity to help the affiliate—in this case the Pensacola Habitat for Humanity—accelerate their goals.”

Rico Ducatel, 26, has been serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA –Volunteer in Service to America—with the HFHI affiliate in his native Collier County for the past nine months. Ducatel worked clearing vacant lots during the Pensacola Build-a-Thon.

As a VISTA, Ducatel works with the Success Measures program in Collier County, analyzing the impact of HFHI’s work there. In his service year, Ducatel has seen, “By cleaning up a community, it gives more pride to the residents; it also decreases crime in the areas we clean up.”

Though he initially planned to pursue a Master’s in Business Administration and a corporate career, Ducatel said the work he’s done with AmeriCorps has him aiming for a Master’s in Public Administration for Nonprofit Organizations. “Working with Habitat I saw that the nonprofit sector is doing more good in the lives of people, giving back to the world.”

Inspiration through HFHI is of the utmost importance to Clive Rainey, Habitat for Humanity’s very first volunteer. Rainey has been working with the organization since 1977 and retired after 33 years as an HFHI staff member, but now works with a Habitat group in Guatemala, where he lives.

Rainey worked during the Pensacola Build-a-Thon and delivered the final speech at the event’s closing ceremony, encouraging the AmeriCorps members to continue serving their communities beyond their service year.

“The most powerful thing for me now is looking the next generation in the eye, because I’m 67,” said Rainey. With the continued addition of young volunteers, Rainey said when it is eventually time to stop working he will be fulfilled. “I will know that Habitat continues—because we’re not done yet.”