Hard core: Regular cadre of Habitat for Humanity volunteers rebuilds neighborhood

By Joe Stumpe | August 31, 2022

Habitat for Humanity volunteer Stan Chase cuts walls for on a new home on Estelle Street.

On a sweltering August day when the sensible thing to do would seem to be staying near an air conditioner, a half-dozen retirees are outside climbing ladders, pounding nails and sawing boards in a central Wichita neighborhood. 

Heat gone to their heads? No, more like hard-headed, soft-hearted Habitat for Humanity volunteers determined to get another home built for a Wichita family who needs one.

“This will get me ready for hiking,” one of them, Donna Bates, joked as she climbed a ladder to paint a wall. 

“I start out a large (shirt size) and lose a size during the day,” another, Lyle Koehn, said.

The organization refers to Bates, Koehn and the others as “cores.”

“They’re really kind of the backbone or heart of our organization,” said Christine Moser, volunteer coordinator for Wichita Habitat for Humanity, part of an international nonprofit active in 70 countries. “We couldn’t do it without them. There are about 25 actives cores, predominantly gentlemen, predominantly retired. We have some ladies, too.”

Habitat is different than many nonprofit housing efforts in that it leads to home ownership, not just housing, for beneficiaries of the program. Those participants contribute 250 to 400 volunteer hours to qualify for a home; that time constitutes their down payment. They then pay it off with a no-interest mortgage, with the proceeds used to build more homes.

Donna Bates calls Habitat for Humanity projects her “outdoor gym.”

In recent years, Wichita’s Habitat has been concentrating its work in one neighborhood with a project called “Rock the Block.” The organization has built about 80 houses in an area bounded by Ninth Street, 13th Street, Hillside and Grove. The idea is that by replacing vacant lots and dilapidated housing with new, owner-occupied homes, nearby property values with rise and private development will follow.

The effort has been rebranded “Rock the Block 214” — the last three numbers of its zip code — and expanded north to 17th Street.

Wichita Habitat has also launched a home repair program for existing homes, mostly focused on roofs, siding and other exterior improvements. 

The organization is seeking more volunteers, which “would just make sure that we continue” with all of Wichita Habitat’s efforts, Moser said. “There’s always a need for more housing, so we are always trying to to ramp up how many houses we build during the year.”

Core volunteers anywhere from one morning to 40 hours a week, choosing their own shifts and jobs for the most part. Tuesdays are for cores only, while other volunteers join them Wednesday through Saturday. When plenty of volunteers are available, “The cores will end up taking more a teaching role,” Moser said.

The cores cite a variety of reasons for their involvement.

“I felt like I wanted to give back, and I like working with my hands and swinging a hammer,” said Stan Chase, who’s volunteered for two years. “In my life, I feel like I’ve been fortunate.”

Chuck Graber, a volunteer for six years, said staying active helped him get past cancer. “I found it was a pretty good group of guys. There was aways somebody to talk to. They just let me be comfortable with whatever I was dealing with at that point.”

All seem to like the fact that the program isn’t a “handout,” but rather requires beneficiaries to volunteer as well.

“It helps people instead of enabling them,” Bates said. “I have worked alongside some of them.”

The volunteers aren’t crazy, by the way. On the hottest days, they start and end their work days early to avoid the worst of the heat. The physical nature of the work seems to be a main draw.

“Up and down ladders and stretching and carrying paint — it’s a great outdoor gym,” Bates said.

How to volunteer

To volunteer or get more information about Habitat for Humanity, contact Christine Moser at (316) 269-0755 and her email christine@wichitahabitat.org, or visit wichitahabitat.org.