Building on Faith Week 2014: Helping Hands and Historic Preservation on Viola Street

by Zach Wilcha

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“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.” – Mary McLeod Bethune

A couple years ago, Habitat Philadelphia shifted its focus from not only building houses up from the ground, but also to performing repairs that would preserve families in their homes. Around the same time, we began the process of reaching back out to a vibrant Philadelphia faith community who was in search of service opportunities to put their faith in action. With these factors in mind, last summer we created an event that would complete a blitz of repairs to help local families while celebrating service in the faith community. Our first ever Building on Faith Week, set on Stiles Street in West Philadelphia, was a success.

This summer, we wanted to recreate last year’s success on a different block in West Philadelphia. Once again we would beautify and stabilize a block with the help of congregations and families on the block. Our search for the perfect block was short since the block captain and residents of the 4200 block of Viola Street reached out to us and asked us for help. This highly organized block approached our West Philadelphia repair program called The Other Carpenter, which provides small home repairs to those eligible. Applicants for The Other Carpenter Program must have a household income of 80% or below the Philadelphia median income, $34,207, according to 2011 census data. Those who will receive the repairs will pay for the cost of repairs in installments and sweat equity.

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After selecting a block to stabilize through repairs, we put out the call to Philadelphia’s faith community and were overwhelmed by the response. First, we received a generous sponsorship for our project from Thrivent Builds. For the ninth consecutive year, Thrivent Financial committed millions to stabilize, strengthen and secure communities in 2014 through its unique partnership called Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity. We were lucky to be the benefit of their generosity. After that, many congregations and religiously affiliated organizations reached out to us, eager to help. We had volunteer representatives from:

Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church

Church of the Holy Trinity

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Old Saint Joe’s Catholic Church

First Presbyterian Church

Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church

St. Cornelius Catholic Parish

Open Door Christian Community of Drexel

Esperanza

St. Joe’s Prep High School

Agnes Irwin School

We also had help from other organizations, such as Temple Medical School, SEER Interactive, many individual volunteers inspired to serve, and the wonderful residents of Viola Street.

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Each day began with a blessing from a different faith leader from the Philadelphia area. Then our staff worked together with volunteers on the external facades of homes, doing everything from providing new paint jobs to strengthening balustrades. Some lucky groups of volunteers even got to dress up like astronauts in Tyvex suits to scrape away decades-old lead paint from porches. Along with a block clean-up initiative, volunteers also helped refurbish the block’s community gardens by building flower beds up and down the street. Of course, a project as large as this does not come without challenges. Our volunteers worked through the summer heat, and our staff navigated difficult regulations involved with historic preservation.

What makes this Viola Street project stand out against other Habitat partnerships is that it pairs low-income housing with historic preservation, rather than new construction. Habitat had to follow strict rules and regulations to make sure we were in line with historic preservation efforts because the Viola Street blocks sit inside the Parkside Historic District. They are on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places due to the unique Victorian architecture and connection to world history, which includes the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

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The residents of the block threw a BBQ to celebrate the end of Building on Faith Week, and everyone was invited. Volunteers and staff were able to mingle with the residents of the block and discuss the work that had just been undertaken over burgers and popsicles.

Over 4 days, over 200 volunteers from 15 different organizations worked on 16 different homes, changing countless lives. Habitat Philadelphia’s work will continue on Viola Street for the next month. If you’re interested helping or learning more about the historic preservation aspects of our project, contact us at volunteer@habitatphiladelphia.org. Our Building on Faith Committee meets year-round to plan projects like Building on Faith Week. If you’d like to learn more about opportunities for faith groups at Habitat Philadelphia, contact Zach at zachw@habitatphiladelphia.org.

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About Habitat Philadelphia

Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia is an independently chartered affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), the largest nonprofit homebuilder worldwide. Locally, Habitat Philadelphia is on a mission to transform lives and our city by building and repairing quality homes in partnership with families in need, and uniting all Philadelphians around the cause of affordable housing. Our Vision is a city where all Philadelphians live in safe, affordable homes.
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