Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summer Fun!

Dear Listener,

Thank you for patiently waiting for another post! A lot has happened since July, and I'll try to be more frequent with my posts so they aren't this long.

Southold Town Youth Bureau: Town Dump Beautification

We at the Youth Bureau have been meeting every month to develop environmental education initiatives targeting youth. In June, Bureau director Phillip Beltz, three Greenport and Mattituck High School students and I met at the local transfer station in Cutchogue (a.k.a. the town dump) to do, ironically, some beautification. 

A manager at the transfer station had kindly provided 8 wooden raised garden beds and purchased over $500 worth of flowers. The raised beds were in a grave state of disrepair, and the task was to rebuild the beds with material from the recycle section of the dump, then fill the boxes with compost and plant the flowers. The manager also provided the compost as the dump does its own composting.

I never thought I could have so. much. fun. at the town dump! The students and I scavenged the metals section for some good material to repair the raised beds. Most of the beds had no bottom and all were damaged in some way or another. We found old chicken wire and used that along with recycled newspaper to fix up all of the holes and reinforce the beds, then we filled them with compost and planted the flowers! A transfer station employee came along with a forklift to move the heavy beds all around the entrance and parking lot. At the end of it all we weeded the place just to make our dump look even nicer! 

Too easy!

Youth Bureau: School Environmental Education

Director Beltz, another new board member Dan Deacon and I have been meeting as a sub-committee to develop environmental education initiatives targeting the elementary, junior and senior high schools of Southold Township. We agreed that reducing waste, recycling and water quality were important issues we could feasibly tackle, and started discussing ways to help the local schools improve their waste systems.

Well, it turns out the Southold Town Waste Management board is already working on a recycling initiative targeting town schools! This is great news, as we can now focus less on the waste management of our initiative and more on youth involvement and the environmental education of students. 

I'll provide updates on our progress when I can, but I'm very excited about this. Education is keystone to positive change, and can lead to improved water quality and greater concern and care for our fragile local ecosystem. Many students understand the big picture already; through my interactions with youth I believe future generations are moving fast towards greater environmental sustainability. In my opinion it is region specific information that many students lack, along with opportunities to participate and contribute to greater regional sustainability.

Our youth bureau board will await the results of the initial meetings between the schools and waste management board. We will move on from there. I can see art contests with clean water as a theme, or tech classes competing to see who can create the best recycling bin. I see collaborations with local advocacy organizations and sustainable businesses. I see guest speakers talking at the local high schools such as scientists, advocates, writers, directors and producers that live on Long Island and in the Hamptons.

Oh yeah! Gettin' stuff done! These guys know.
The Habitat for Humanity Model is Amazing

Coming from my experience in Senegal with the Peace Corps, I've always been very mindful of sustainability when examining a non-profit's model. I would like to let you know why Habitat for Humanity's model is one of the best I've ever encountered, and why I'm very happy to be serving with them.

Housing on Long Island is extremely expensive. Whether owning your own home or renting a home or apartment (if you can find one), the cost is extremely high. For a husband and wife with child, or a single mother or father, saving up a down payment and getting approved for a loan is typically out of the question. Because the supply of rental housing cannot meet the demand, families are forced to rent apartments at exploitative rates or settle for unsafe housing. Add to the situation the problem of transportation on Long Island, with the only reliable public option being the Long Island Rail Road. With each station being an average of 8 miles away from each other, the chance you live within walking distance of a LIRR station is minute.

As of the 2010 census, one out of two families with an annual household income of between $50,000 and $75,000 is spending over 35% of that income in housing costs alone (LongIslandIndex.orgHousing Infographic). Adding transportation costs to that and purchasing and owning a home on Long Island becomes impractical for a lower-income family, such as new parents often are.

Habitat for Humanity Suffolk offers one of the only local opportunities for a lower income family to purchase and own a home. Contrary to the belief of some, Habitat partners with families in purchasing a home. Families go through a lengthy application process which they must pass three qualifications: (1) They are living in substandard housing and are unable to obtain adequate housing by conventional means; (2) They have a consistent and verifiable income that is enough to afford the mortgage as well as taxes, insurance and any other monthly fees; (3) They are willing to fulfill all the partnership requirements for Habitat home ownership, meaning they exhibit timeliness, completeness and cooperation with the application and they are willing to commit 300 hours of service to the building of their home and other Habitat homes.

There are many reasons why this model works so well. One is the ubquitious and easily relatable nature of the problem. The problem of substandard and unattainable housing is universally understood, especially here on Long Island. Because the problem is easily understood, donations and volunteer support is more readily available to affordable housing organizations.

The real gem of the Habitat model is the volunteer model it's based on. Much like many places in Africa, a community gets together to build a house when needed. This act is then repeated by the community for another person, and the first Habitat homeowner contributes their time again to a second homeowner. The more Habitat homeowners there are, the more people there are to help build another house. These homeowners are also walking talking examples of what the love of a community can accomplish, and they naturally promote Habitat in their daily lives.

The volunteers that come out to help have a genuinely fun time building a house. It becomes a win for the volunteers, a win for the corporations and businesses donating their money and labor as they receive good press and a very fun experience, a win for Habitat as more houses mean more federal and corporate grants, a win for the homeowner who will now begin his or her 0% interest mortgage payments on their new home, a win for the children of the family who will grow up in safer conditions with more room to play, be happy and do their homework, and ultimately a win for the neighborhood the family moves into as a new hard working and responsible family is added to the block.

We offer a hand up to a selected family partner not a hand out. The more support we receive, the more hands we can grab and pull up. Naturally one would think, even if its for a brief second, "Why can't I have a new home? I'm struggling too." The answer to that is you can apply and partner with us to purchase a new home if it's the right fit for you and if you qualify. Do you have family with housing to rely on? Do you want to purchase and pay off a 30 year mortgage on a home in a neighborhood of Habitat's choosing? What if the neighborhood is a "not so nice" one? Our real estate is usually delinquent lots and houses acquired through donations from the local town governments. Properties that are acquired through delinquency are usually in "bad" neighborhoods, and a partnering Habitat family has to be okay with that.

If it's not your time to partner with Habitat, then volunteer and help a fellow community member. One day it could be your time. 

AmeriCorps VISTA Member, Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk County

You are now listening to the new AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer Training Coordinator of Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk County. Phew, that's a mouthful of a title. But what does it mean!?

This is my new VISTA site mate Danielle in front of a double rainbow!

Essentially my primary assignment is to expand the volunteer model of our Habitat for Humanity affiliate to include recruitment and training of skilled and experienced volunteers. Our Habitat built around 10 houses last year, and less the year before. This year we are on track to finishing 16 houses, a huge increase. This represents an increase of work which requires more crew leaders on the ground to help guide volunteers. Crew leaders  are regular volunteers who are informed privately when a church group or corporate group is coming out to a build site. We have a few, but we need more.

I've been reaching out to current volunteers to step up and lead. I've also met with the trade schools around Suffolk County such as Eastern Suffolk BOCES and apprenticeship programs at the local trade unions. Each potential partnership has the ability to yield so much more than just a few crew leaders, and together we will explore the many ways we can collaborate and help each other.

Which leads me to my secondary assignment, to create and expand partnerships with licensed tradesmen and women. Habitat Suffolk currently subcontracts specific construction tasks such as plumbing and septic work. If our affiliate could create a partnership with a plumbing contractor or septic systems contractor whereby we receive donated labor and materials, or just labor, we could shave that cost off of the budget of the house. Eventually the savings would add up to full funding for another house. That's another hard-working low income family receiving the opportunity to own a home.


I hope you've enjoyed this update as much as I've enjoyed living it. Let me know what you think and share all of your ideas! Because my VISTA assignment requires independent and imaginative thinking I could use all the help I can get. 

Love and peace,

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