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Habitat Celebrates 20 Years Of Building Faith in Communities

Amid the cacophony of pounding hammers and buzzing saws, Susan and Michael Robinson survey the construction of their new three-bedroom ranch house.

Things are moving fast. Four outside walls are up with windows, and the floor and roof are near completion. Insulation and drywall work will begin the next day. In a week, the house will be finished.

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"I couldn't believe how quickly it went up," Mrs. Robinson says proudly. Just one day earlier, there was nothing more than a foundation here. But after 10 hours of labor by 45 hard-working volunteers, the house is well on its way to completion. She and her husband and three children plan to move in on Sept. 15.

Welcome to "Building on Faith" week, a special home-building effort this week in nearly 70 US cities as well as in Canada and Mexico. Sponsored by Habitat for Humanity International, it is part of the organization's 20-year anniversary celebration. Festivities also include the dedication of Habitat's 50,000th home this week in Pensacola, Fla.

Through volunteer work, donated materials, and contributions, Habitat for Humanity builds houses for families in need all over the world. The homes are sold without a profit through no-interest loans.

Founded by Millard Fuller in 1976, this nonprofit Christian housing ministry based in Americus, Ga., became a household name after former President Jimmy Carter grabbed a hammer and promoted the group in 1986. Just this week, Habitat's founder was recognized when President Clinton awarded Mr. Fuller the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

"The wonderful thing about this ministry is to understand that God's love has no limits and that God's love extends to everyone," said Fuller at a special Habitat ceremony here earlier this week.

According to Fuller, about 65 percent of Americans are home owners, an improvement over a couple of years ago. His goal is to increase that percentage further. "It has taken us 20 years to build the first 50,000 houses," he says. "We will build the next 50,000 houses in 2-1/2 years."

Originally, Fuller's intention was to build homes for families in the rural South and developing nations. After 20 years, Habitat has flourished. The organization boasts 1,200 affiliates in 50 states and more than 200 affiliates around the world.

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"Habitat continues to impress me," says Christine Letts, public policy lecturer who specializes in nonprofit organizations at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The involvement of volunteers allows them to achieve a connection with the community and people in need ... and engages them in seeing poor people as neighbors rather objects of society."

The group draws volunteers of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds. Protestant and Roman Catholic volunteers work side by side on houses in Northern Ireland, for example. Volunteers are building homes for families in Botswana, Hungary, and El Salvador. Plans are under way to open an affiliate in Bosnia.

Growth continues at chapters on college campuses, and many are now forming at high schools and lower grades.

Teenager Soren Spies of Evanston, Ill., for example, just finished building a house with fellow students from Evanston Township High School. The school helped raise $35,000. "[With Habitat], you feel like you're doing something, and that's nice. And you can see what you've done," he says.

People support Habitat because it's not a giveaway program, according to Fuller. To qualify for a home, families must go through several interviews, and are chosen based on their ability to make mortgage payments. Homeowners are expected to invest hundreds of hours in Habitat building work as well.

At the Yarmouth site, Michael Robinson can't stop smiling as he talks about his new home. "I walk up to people here and say 'thank you,' and they turn around and say, 'Thank you for giving us the opportunity to help."

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