Back in 2006, when Daniel Hernandez was 10 years old, his family’s version of the American dream started to come true.
His father was a migrant worker born in Mexico, and for a time his mother worked the fields beside him.
As their children were born–Daniel, now 21, has two sisters, 20 and 17, and a 14-year-old brother–his parents, particularly his mother, longed for a better life for their growing family.
“We were living in–you could almost consider it a one-bedroom house, ‘cause my parents slept in their room, and then we had bunk beds,” Hernandez said.
“Sometimes I’d sleep in the living room, which is kind of small too, but I come from a migrant working background.”
Field labor could only carry the family so far.
“When you come from Mexico and you have no educational background, that’s what you do, anything to support your family,” Hernandez said.
His mother knew she could do better. The first step was asking Habitat for Humanity Tulare/Kings County for a helping hand.
“She said, ‘This is not for me,’” Hernandez said. “At the time, we had applied for Habitat for Humanity. We had been going to church. My mom prayed, and she knew she was going to get the house.”
Earning a Home
Hoping, praying and being rewarded were only the start. Getting help from Habitat is not a free ride.
“Our homeowners don’t get a free house,” said Deanna Saldana, Habitat T/K’s director of resource development. “They have to pay a mortgage payment, so we are looking for hardworking families.”
That’s what they found in the Hernandez Family. Those picked to work with Habitat on building or rebuilding a home of their own must pick up the tools and join the crew. But Habitat is flexible. Those chosen can make their contribution on projects for other families, and they can take as long as they need to do their part.
Habitat is only one means of addressing substandard housing for low-income people, says Habitat T/K’s executive director Dirk Holkeboer, who has overseen the building of 60 homes over his 23 years running the program, and it isn’t for everyone. But it works.
“What we’re trying to do is create opportunities for folks who need a decent place to live but can’t afford a home to work with us,” he said. “To partner with us, to become homeowners by building or renovating homes with us.”
Affordable, Decent Place to Live
Holkeboer, who calls himself a reformed lawyer, wanted a career that might change the world around him for the better. He volunteered with Habitat in his native Michigan and soon was working in Georgia at its home office, where he oversaw President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalyn Carter’s annual Carter Work Project.
“An affordable, decent place to live is important for all kinds of reasons. It allows people to thrive, to raise their children,” he said of why Habitat’s work is significant. “It’s transformational. It’s about stability and security for the family, so that they can grow into all they can be.”
That was certainly the case for the Hernandez Family. A home of their own made a lasting difference, and should for generations to come. It started with Hernandez’s mother.
“It was the spark that she needed to turn things around in her life,” he said.
She earned a bachelor’s degree and now teaches high school.
“After we received the house, my mom felt the need to go back to school, because she felt the need to be an example for her children,” Hernandez said. “That you could struggle, but you have to take it upon yourself to better yourself and give your children better opportunities, that you don’t want to stay at the same level that you started, that you want to grow and thrive.”
Rolling It Over
The investment Habitat made in the Hernandez Family isn’t lost. The payments they make on their Tulare home are put back into Habitat’s lending pool, used again and again to finance their other repair and construction projects.
Not only does Habitat hire local workers and purchase their supplies from local vendors, they do it over and over.
“Those monthly payments come back to Habitat, and we recycle those monies to help other families, so one of our phrases is: It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” said Holkeboer. “And, Daniel’s parents, who’ve been living in their home now for about 11 years, they have been helping us build homes with other families in similar circumstances, even though they probably haven’t swung a hammer on a site in a few years.”
And once a family gets that hand up, there’s no going back.
“Once we get a family in, it’s a permanent solution,” said Saldana. “It’s an investment for not just the family but the whole community.”
There are two myths Holkeboer would like to debunk about Habitat. The first is that it was founded by the Carters. It wasn’t. The second is the only thing Habitat needs is volunteer workers. They also need cash, and the more they get the more the whole community benefits, as it gets used again and again.
“It takes a lot of hands, but it takes a lot of dollars,” Holkeboer said. “The funding that we need to do our programs come from the community. There’s no pipeline of support from Georgia. What we do is only limited by what we receive from the community.”
That said, Habitat also needs volunteer workers of any skill level for a variety of jobs, including manning the ReStore, Habitat’s used hardware store at 637 S. Lovers Lane in Visalia, or working on its social media sites and helping market its programs.
“We have jobs for everyone, regardless of their skill, so we do a lot of teaching on the work sites,” Holkeboer said. “You get to do things you maybe haven’t ever done before.”
Change for the Generations
Daniel Hernandez, who now works as a volunteer for Habitat mainly in its low-income home repair program, is certainly doing things he’s never done before.
He’s a junior now at William Penn University in Iowa, where he’s studying industrial technology with an eye toward architecture. His older sister is in college, too. His brother is a star soccer player who intends to go pro, and his sister is on track to graduate high school and go beyond. Even his father, who still works in the fields, is thinking about education again.
All of it, Hernandez says, goes back to the family’s owning its own home.
“He has more opportunities now. He’s also considering getting his high school diploma,” he said. “That’s so cool. It makes me happy and sad at the same time.”
Those fundamental changes are the true reward for Habitat staff and its supporters, says Saldana.
“We were able to watch that, to see the impact,” she said, “to watch that snowball to the end.”
It doesn’t end there. The help Habitat provided the Hernandez Family means the group can now help even more families.
“It’s like planting a seed,” Hernandez explained. “Habitat plants a seed for my family and it grows into a tree. The tree drops seeds. They grow.”
The work Hernandez is doing for Habitat now, repairing houses of low-income homeowners, will pay off in the long-run for him as he learns the building trades while becoming an architect. It will also pay off for the entire community Habitat serves.
“We do wheelchair ramps, exterior painting, bathroom modifications, yard maintenance, roof repairs, leaky toilets, all kinds of things,” Holkeboer explained. “It’s similar to the home ownership program. The folks, the homeowners that we work with, pay back the cost of those projects into our revolving loan fund, and use those funds again, along with donations from the community, to help other families.”
If anyone doubts the program works over the long-haul, they can rest assured. The first mortgage Habitat offered here was paid off last year, 22 years after the homeowner took possession. Every penny she repaid has made its way back into the program and from there around the community.
Daniel Hernandez may also be back when he finishes his education. He intends to seek a master’s degree in architecture starting next year at Fresno State. When that’s done, Habitat would love to have him back.
“He can come back any time he wants,” Saldana said. “We want him to design the Habitat house, then come back and help us build it.”