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Tom Graham: Habitat Buffalo offers key hands-on learning

The Buffalo affiliate of Habitat for Humanity is one of the top Habitat affiliates in the United States. This year, Habitat Buffalo dedicated its 250th house. Each year, we build five new houses, and rehabilitate 11 others. These Energy Star-compliant houses are for Habitat families who have put in 500 hours of sweat equity and meet the low-income and credit-rating requirements.

My role as a volunteer on the Habitat Site Selection Committee is to have a long-range plan for our new-build locations, acquire property from the City of Buffalo and obtain the building permits. I then serve as the general contractor and hire and supervise contractors for excavation, full basement installation and foundation drainage. I have a great sense of satisfaction when the foundation is ready and I turn the project over to our volunteer new-build crew.

Each spring, three foundations have to be ready because the University at Buffalo School of Architecture offers a three-week course where 40 students enroll and frame three houses in Buffalo. Over the past 23 years, UB students have framed 56 houses for Habitat Buffalo. The students are mentored by Habitat regular senior volunteers, construction supervisors and a UB architecture faculty member. The students gain valuable hands-on construction experience, and some are inspired for a life of community service.

The course is a core part of the school’s learn-by-doing approach. It was rewarding to me when a recent UB architecture graduate, who completed the Habitat course and is now working for a Buffalo architecture company, said the program’s influence has followed her into practice.

Every summer, I have to prepare two foundations for prebuilt houses from vocational programs at McKinley High School and from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Each house is built in two sections at the schools. Habitat Buffalo pays for the foundations, the cost of the building materials and the moving costs of the houses from each school to the foundations.

Habitat also finds the prequalified families for the houses. Volunteers then complete the on-site construction. The collaborative arrangement between Habitat Buffalo, the schools and the Construction Exchange of Buffalo provides hands-on vocational training of actually building a house while in high school.

Habitat Buffalo also provides weeklong work camps for colleges and church groups. College students from across the United States and Canada have come to Buffalo as part of the Habitat Collegiate Challenge or as an alternative spring break. The students gain valuable hands-on building experience while being mentored by our Habitat Buffalo supervisors and volunteers.

Habitat Buffalo also has local church groups, school groups and companies that send teams of volunteers to help build houses on a regular basis. There is also a core group of volunteers, many of whom are retired, who work each day on Habitat houses in Buffalo.

It is profound for me to see how the impact of home ownership, in a new Habitat house, transforms a street and then a neighborhood. It is happening in Buffalo because of the commitment of volunteers and students who are learning lifelong lessons in community service.

Tom Graham, of East Aurora, is a site selection volunteer for Habitat for Humanity Buffalo.