Forsyth Habitat aims to bridge cultures

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The first Saturday in March, a diverse group of 125 volunteers shared lunch at a construction site in Ridgewood Place in southeast Winston-Salem.

The volunteers were working on a “blitz build” to construct three houses for Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County.

Working on one house were juniors and seniors from five local high schools.

Building another were members of three white Presbyterian churches, three African-American Presbyterian churches, a synagogue, a mosque and a Hispanic church.

And teaming up at the third house were volunteers from two elementary schools, one largely white and middle-class, the other with a large Hispanic student population.

Lunch consisted of a traditional Mexican meal prepared by mothers from the school with the Hispanic students.

“Habitat is all about building social capital,” says Sylvia Oberle, executive director.

Oberle, who joined Habitat in February, says a top priority will be to increase “cross-cultural involvement” in the organization, and in particular to involve more Hispanics.

That goal reflects a long-term effort spearheaded by the Winston-Salem Foundation to strengthen civic connections in the community, known as “social capital.”

The foundation in 2000 pledged to invest $2.5 million over five years in its Everybody Can Help Out initiative, or ECHO, to strengthen civic-connectedness.

Initially, that effort focused on raising awareness about what social capital is, says Oberle, a member of the ECHO Council formed two years ago to spur more concrete social-capital activities.

As part of that shift, Habitat last year received a grant of $66,000 to build a single house and hire a part-time project manager.

The house, one of the three now under construction in Ridgewood Place, is being built by parents and teachers at Cash Elementary School in a largely white, middle class neighborhood in Kernersville, and at Old Town Elementary School in a neighborhood in northwest Winston-Salem with a large Hispanic population.

Roughly 25 to 30 individuals from each school have been involved in building the house, and Habitat has given a national Habitat curriculum to both schools, which also have featured bulletin-board displays about the owners of the new home.

“They’re learning what it means to be involved in the community and help out another family,” Oberle says.

Habitat also provides a translator at the building site.

Helping to recruit parent volunteers for the project has been Maria Aristizabal, a Hispanic whom Habitat hired to serve as part-time project manager.

Aristizabal, a YMCA community-services employee and member of the ECHO Council, also has translated into Spanish the manual Habitat provides to sponsors of its houses, and has set up a phone line at Habitat’s office for Spanish-speaking people.

And each Saturday during construction of the Ridgewood Place house, Aristizabal leads “bale discussions” for parent volunteers from both schools on topics they choose.

“It’s about understanding each other’s culture,” Oberle says.

Now, she says, Habitat plans to assess the housing needs of the region’s rapidly-growing Hispanic population and launch a major effort to build more houses for Hispanics, including hiring bilingual staff, offering Spanish classes to staff members and possibly assigning a staff member to the new Hispanic initiative.

“Our experience with the ECHO house,” Oberle says, “has increased our awareness of and commitment to reaching out to Hispanics.”

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