Star-Bulletin Features

Saturday, May 12, 2001

Habitat For Humanity is helping Debra Keola build her own
three-bedroom, one-bath home. Shown at the groundbreaking
ceremony, from left above, are Habitat for Humanity president
Joe Uno, Keola with daughter Amber standing behind her
and Debra's father A. Keola.

Building hope

Volunteers spend weekends with
hammer and nails to raise a house
and neighborhood pride
in Waimanalo

By Burl Burlingame

THE EMPTY LOT on Bell Street in Waimanalo was, for as long as anyone could remember, a home -- for thousands of rats. "It just swarmed," said Debra Keola, who lives across the street with her parents. "They lived in a giant rubber tree."

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs took down the rubber tree several years ago and leveled the lot, preparing it for construction. And last Saturday there was a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site -- for Debra Keola. She's working with Habitat for Humanity to build a home on the site, a dawning dream that affects her nearly to tears.

The Hawaiian single mother simply can't afford a home, even though she works steadily as a police radio dispatcher (that could be her voice when you call 911!) But Habitat for Humanity, the can-do organization that has already helped folks build some 100,000 homes in 69 countries, is helping her build another. Having already built 34 homes on Oahu, they're aiming at 300 more in the next five years, according to the executive director of Hawaii's HFH office, Jose Villa.

Habitat For Humanity is helping Debra Keola build her home.

For the next four or five months, a team of volunteers will converge on the site every Saturday and work at house-raising. Keola, having already demonstrated to HFH that she can't afford a new home, but is willing to pitch in to build one, will devote 500 hours of labor, half on her house and half on someone's else's HFH home. It's sort of a you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours, but with hammers and nails.

"Ninety-five percent are volunteers," Villa told the sizable group of well-wishers. "People come because they want to -- if you build it, they will come! -- and because they know that little contributions add up. For Habitat for Humanity, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts."

We'll check in periodically and give updates on the progress of the Waimanalo effort.

On Saturday, it was just a bare, dusty lot, with a tent filled with food and the traditional gold-painted shovels used for ground-breaking ceremonies. The lease with OHA on the homestead lot is in the names of Debra Keola and her brother, and it took a couple of years to negotiate. The "dream that's coming true, the day is finally here" will consist of three bedrooms and two baths. Living there will be Debra and her brother, and her daughters Amber, 9, and Abcde, 4.

Volunteer Kim Jacobsen wondered how anyone could resist spending a few weekends doing something constructive in Waimanalo. "The people are wonderful, and you can't beat the view. You don't have to be a trained carpenter. Most are untrained. But most anyone can drive a nail. Houses are generally built by three or four people; what happens when you get 50 workers? It goes up quickly."

The last house Jacobsen worked on had a total of 97 people contributing time, although only 10 or so were regulars. "We'll get church groups, architectural students, military just out to interact with the community. Last week we had a mother from North Shore come down with her kids just so they could have the experience of home-building."

The site was researched by retired Blanche Pope teacher Moana Akana, a community organizer in Waimanalo who has identified dozens of potential building or rehab sites in the largely Hawaiian coastal community. She sees HFH as a tool in building self-empowerment and community pride in a neighborhood suffering from an erosion in civic responsibility.

"We need to take back our neighborhood," she said bluntly. "Bring back the Hawaiians who are able to accomplish things for themselves. We are capable, if given the choice.

Supporters taste Hawaiian salt as part of the blessing and dedication
ceremony for a Habitat for Humanity home in Waimanalo
for Debra Keola.

"I had a little boy in my classroom who was living in a car. In a car, can you imagine? Then his folks moved into a house, a real home. His attitude and his grades changed completely. He was saved, by something as simple as a roof over his head. There are positive ways of living, of taking care of yourself and your community, and our young men and women need to see real examples of that."

Some were drawn in by an interest in home-building, such as property manager Gary Yamanaka, who was taking a carpentry course at Honolulu Community College when he saw a bulletin board notice looking for HFH volunteers. Expecting it to be a kind of on-the-job wood-working homework, he pitched in.

"But I stayed because of the people. That's why we keep coming back. And I can drive by a house and think proudly I had a little to do with that."

One of the Hawaii old-timers is social worker Mariano Hernando, who learned about HFH from a library exhibit and "was fascinated by the whole concept. I volunteered in 1989. I can't contribute cash to anything, but I can contribute time and sweat. But the best part is seeing people enter their home for the first time, and they have tears in their eyes. It's so great to be part of that."

Hawaii HFH vice-president July Spencer was originally working at Hardware Hawaii when the organization approached the store about donating materials. "I was on the path to becoming a yuppie," she sighs, thinking about why she quit her job to work with HFH. "But this was a cause that I wanted to be a part of, and it's been the best experience of my life. It's an opportunity to give back to the community, to do whatever you have to to make it work. It gives a sense of accomplishment."

Project supervisor Bill Bailey was a retired plumber visiting his cousin in Hawaii when the inevitable happened: "I was introduced to a lady and never went back!" Since he enjoys working with his hands, Bailey looked around for something to do and ran across HFH.

"If I'd known how much fun building houses was, I'd have quit plumbing years ago," Bailey said. "I get teary-eyed when I recall people moving into these houses for the first time."

Bailey has supervised the construction of 18 HFH homes in the islands. What he likes best, however, is the "camaraderie of the crews. They're such nice people."

Bailey stresses that carpentry skills and tools aren't necessary. "But if you have a hammer and work gloves, bring them."

Keola is actually "excited about learning carpentry skills, and instilling the same skills in my kids. I really want them to see every aspect of the work involved in building a house, so they can appreciate what it takes to construct one. "In a way, this is better than getting a loan and buying a house already built -- because we'll always remember and appreciate how it came about."

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