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Pitching in -- an Appalachian house-raising

``It was a real house-raising -- just like in the western movies,'' Carylon Cooper recalls. ``It's amazing that people care enough to do this.'' There were dozens of people on the scene, from preschoolers to retirees. No one was idle. In the attic, a teen-age girl from Chicago was installing insulation. Outside, three other girls mixed cement, cracking jokes as they worked. A retired insurance agent framed a window in one bedroom, to the music of hammers from the crew putting up siding. Cars bearing cold drinks and sandwiches came and went.

One of the volunteer workers, Roy Jernigan, had been coming to this town annually for 13 years. Each summer he traveled across the state for a ``vacation'' which he spent working without pay to help someone he didn't know build a house. ``To me, this is living,'' he said. ``People helping people -- it's one of the basic concepts of America.''

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For five full days, the action continued unabated. Then Saturday dawned, and the house Carylon Cooper had dreamed of for four frustrating years was near completion.

Mrs. Cooper, a single mother with two small children, owes her dream house to a program that has helped nearly 200 low-income families in this rural area build homes of their own.

Macon County, in the mountains of western North Carolina, is a ruggedly beautiful place with about 20,000 residents. The Appalachian spirit of ``neighbor helping neighbor'' is strong here; it helps to account for the success of the Self-Help Housing Program, started in 1967 by the local community services agency, Macon Program for Progress (MPP).

Families meeting the income guidelines can apply for a long-term, low-interest loan from the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), then build a house on their own site. An MPP technical assistance staff offers guidance and instruction, but generally not labor. That comes, in various ways, from volunteers. Often, families cooperate to build each other's houses. Then there's a steady flow of workers from the community -- people who want to help or who enjoy building as a hobby. Out-of-towners and even out-of-staters join the act, too; many of these volunteers are recruited through church networks, and a number of them return on their own in subsequent years.

Most of the houses have been built by the homeowners themselves in three-family teams. They work together to frame one house, then go on to the others. They rotate their work until all three buildings are complete. The market value of a finished house averages $42,000. The program keeps the cost to about $27,000, and a big chunk of the savings is the owners' ``sweat equity.''

Katie and Joe Harden, who moved into their new house not long ago, had known their share of frustration. They had applied for a loan to buy a cousin's house. ``The day the loan came through, the house burned,'' Mrs. Harden says. Self-Help gave them a workable option.

``When you first start you think, oh, goodness, we'll never get it done. It takes so long. But when all three families work, it goes faster. Building it yourself, it means more,'' she adds. She and her husband have put so much extra effort into their house that it has become a showplace for the program.

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The concept of three families building three houses has remained the core of the program, but early on it became clear this approach would not always work. Some applications came from families that could not contribute labor because of disability, or because there was no man in the family to do the heavy work. The volunteer house was born. Eighteen such houses have now been built. Three more are going up this year.

Carylon Cooper almost gave up hope on her volunteer-built house. ``We've moved several times,'' she says. ``The children have never really had their own place.'' She and April, 7, and Derik, 5, had been sharing a room in her parents' trailer.

``I'd been down so many avenues. I was approved for a [FmHA] loan, and signed three options, but they didn't work out.'' Getting a home seemed impossible. Then Mrs. Cooper got a call from Pat Garrett, director of MPP. ``She asked if I was still interested. I said yes, and started again from the beginning,'' she explains.

Self-Help works, but not because it's easy. Applicants experience all the frustrations known to any would-be homeowner dealing with loan applications, plans, and millions of details.

``It was really, really hard work,'' Mrs. Cooper admits. Alone in the house after a day at work, she often experienced ``tears, frustrations, depression,'' facing innumerable tasks that remained after the army of volunteers had gone. ``I told myself, this is nobody's responsibility but mine.'' Friends and relatives pitched in, but still she put uncountable hours into finishing the kitchen cabinets and other woodwork, cutting brush, and clearing.

``It means a lot more to me to live in this house that I have worked so hard on. I wouldn't appreciate it as I do if I hadn't put this kind of time in it,'' she says. ``I've never sweated so hard in my life -- it's hard, manual labor. But you are working toward something.''

The work that participants invest seems to pay off.Some 85 percent of the families still own their homes, and the retention rate for these loans is higher than for the regular FmHA program.

For Mrs. Cooper, building a Self-Help house paid unexpected dividends. She senses a new strength in herself, and she willingly took on the task of explaining the program to a skeptical audience at a statewide poverty conference.

``It's good to do it yourself,'' she says. ``And it's good to have people help you. It restores your faith in mankind. As soon as I get settled here, I intend to get involved in helping others get what's been done for me.''

The MPP's Mrs. Garrett credits the program's success to a multitude of factors, including a ``very conservative board of directors that views the houses as . . . increasing the tax base of the county, and believes in encouraging people to put in work to get something.'' Although the low interest rate is a form of subsidy, as is the technical assistance offered by MPP staff, this is no giveaway program.

``The people of the county are down on welfare,'' Mrs. Garrett says. The mountain ethic values work, independence, and neighborliness, qualities at the heart of Self-Help.

The concept of work was important to the program's founder, Harold Warstler, who saw it as more than a way to lower the cost of housing for the poor.

``Sometimes we give people 10 cents' worth of help and they lose 20 cents' worth of independence,'' he says. ``We should help people succeed, but we shouldn't diminish their feeling of having gotten somewhere on their own.''

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