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Changing the World — One Neighborhood at a Time

Heartland Habitat for Humanity president and CEO Tom Lally stands on the front porch of a recently completed Heartland Habitat for Humanity home that was blessed at the end of January.

Heartland Habitat for Humanity president and CEO Tom Lally stands on the front porch of a recently completed Heartland Habitat for Humanity home that was blessed at the end of January.

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The doorbell moment. It’s something Heartland Habitat for Humanity (HHH) staff and volunteers have come to know and love.

“It never fails,” said Director of Family Services Brenda Martell. “When we dedicate the home and bless it for the family, there’s always that one kid who goes and rings the doorbell and asks, ‘Is that my doorbell?’”

Most families qualifying for HHH housing have spent their lives, perhaps for generations, in Section 8 Housing Program apartments. They’ve never had a doorbell.

“So they don’t even know what a doorbell sounds like,” said Martell. “I’ve been seeing this for years — it always brings tears to my eyes.

“It makes me want to be grateful and appreciate the small things.”

Overland Park’s Church of the Ascension parishioner Greg Malmgren has been involved with HHH for a decade.

He was part of the steering committee tasked with opening the first Habitat for Humanity ReStore and has since volunteered at ReStores and on HHH build projects.

He agrees that the house blessings are an awesome reward for his efforts.

“It gives me a terrific sense of enjoyment to see the looks on these families’ faces, especially the kids,” he said.


HHH is one of the few workplaces where time is specifically dedicated for prayer.

“Everything we do when conducting business — from meeting to construction — we always start with prayer,” said Martell.

Malmgren appreciates the Christ-centered philosophy of the organization and considers his volunteer work with HHH a ministry of faith.

“I definitely feel the Lord’s grace and spirit when we all work together toward a common goal,” he said, “especially when we all pray together before starting to work, before eating lunch and during the home blessings.”

For Martell, a graduate of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, the prayerful atmosphere of HHH is essential to handling the stress that often results from working with the poor.

“I work for God, I don’t work for Habitat,” she said. “To help God’s people in need — that’s the part of our mission I always keep near my heart.

“When it’s overwhelming and challenging because of the volume of people we’re helping, I have to remember that it’s for God’s glory.

“If I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Our mission is simple: decent affordable housing for all of God’s people,” said CEO Tom Lally, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Kansas City, Kansas. “But it encompasses so much more.

“And there’s a constant need.”

Indeed, last year alone, HHH built about 10 homes, but it served more than 6,000 people.

More than a doorbell

“The builds are only one small aspect of what we do,” said Martell. “We have a motto: ‘No one goes away empty-handed. If I cannot help you, then I’ll find someone that can.’”

Though the core competency of HHH is new-home construction with volunteers, it also does homeowner education that includes financial counseling for credit, budgeting and anything that has to do with successful homeownership.

The education aspect of its services became so popular that HHH decided to make it available beyond its own clientele.

“We came up with a program called Common Sense,” said Lally. “We make that available to the general public, and we partner with wonderful social services agencies such as the Keeler Women’s Center (in Kansas City, Kansas.)”

“We have at least one class there every month,” added Martell, who is on the center’s advisory board. “Keeler provides a venue to reach out to all walks of life.”

HHH also does rehab on existing homes through a phenomenal program called Brush with Kindness. It works through local municipalities.

Brush with Kindness volunteers step in to help elderly, disabled or low-income residents make repairs after receiving code violations.

“It’s gotten to the point where the code enforcement officer refers them to us directly,” said Martell.

HHH is also getting to be known for its ReStore outlets — nonprofit home improvement stores and donation centers that sell new and gently used building materials.

“ReStore is a great opportunity to help support our mission and ministry,” said Lally.

A hand up

The mission of Heartland Habitat for Humanity is not only providing affordable housing, but also making sure the people they serve become successful homeowners.

“In order to qualify for our program for a new home,” said Lally, “the applicant is required to go through 50 hours of classroom time for homeowner education.”

And many people are surprised to learn that clients pay for their homes.

“We do sell the home,” explained Lally. “We sell it at no profit and with a zero-percent interest mortgage.

“At that price, it is not a handout, but a hand up.”

Qualifying for a home in the first place is a stringent process.

“The families who receive the homes are thoroughly vetted based on need, character, faith and ability to pay back the zero-interest loans and properly respect and maintain the homes,” said Malmgren.

“These families consist of so many terrific people full of faith and love and appreciation for the opportunity to receive an HHH-sponsored home,” he continued.

And HHH services don’t stop when the keys are handed over.

“They are our families,” said Martell. “Life happens, situations happen. And when they’re in need, we try to be a support system for them and help them.

“We want them to be successful.”

Those successful families become contributing members of society, making the efforts of HHH worthwhile.

“Affordable shelter is a critical component to a wonderful society,” said Lally. “And I think once we start rallying around that, then we’re able to build that home that houses the family unit — that then strengthens the neighborhood.”

Martell agreed

“It’s helping that school maintain [its] numbers,” she said. “It’s helping that child maintain their education in a stable environment.

“It keeps abandoned-homes stock down, which reduces crime.”

A work of mercy

As Pope Francis calls on Catholics to participate in the jubilee Year of Mercy, volunteers see in HHH a way to answer that call.

“I think the Habitat mission embodies what Pope Francis is conveying,” said Lally. “Every day at a Heartland Habitat build site, you see wonderful strangers coming together to help a family they don’t even know.”

When Church of the Nativity parishioners from Leawood built a house in the shadow of St. Peter Cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas, director of Nativity’s caring ministries Tom Garbach helped coordinate volunteers.

“We worked side by side with the family that was going to be the future owners,” he said. “So many different people from different parishes worked on the homebuilding project.

“It was a tremendous learning experience — from the groundbreaking, through each one of the stages of construction, to the final day where we prayed together as a group, blessed the completed home and turned the keys over to the family.”

Garbach and other volunteers found that Heartland Habitat became a community where they got to experience firsthand the struggle and success of a family in need.

“This entire project was a very energizing, uplifting, growth experience in how we can positively impact a neighborhood community and an individual family,” said Garbach. “When we took breaks from building the home, we spent time with neighbors.

“We shared food with them. We prayed with them. Some of them became like brothers and sisters to us, ones that we never knew we had.

“It was one of the best projects we have participated in.”

Garbach’s experience is no surprise to HHH staff members, who have often seen church communities transformed through the volunteer experience.

“To be able to get outside of church,” said Lally, “and perform works of mercy — that really strengthens the core church.”

“It’s amazing what can happen when you reach out, roll up your shirtsleeves and put your faith into action,” said Garbach. “It was one of the most meaningful and visible corporal works of mercy that we’ve been involved in.”

Malmgren agreed.

“If volunteering with HHH is an act of mercy,” he said, “then it sure feels good!”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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