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November 2010

Build-A- Block helps take care of UNC family

One of the sad realities about a vibrant, exciting place like Chapel Hill is that not all of us can afford to live here. At Carolina, that means important members of our campus family -- research assistants, clerical workers, health aides, housekeepers -- are forced to commute long distances or live in substandard conditions.

Those hard-working but low-earning employees are exactly the people Millard and Linda Fuller had in mind when they founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976.

The idea behind Habitat is that it gives a hand up, not a handout, to those who can't get a conventional home loan. Through contributions, volunteer workers and the new homeowner's sweat equity, they can finally afford a place of their own.

Over the years, many individuals and groups at Carolina have contributed and volunteered on various Habitat for Humanity projects. Habitat's current chief executive officer, Jonathan Reckford, is a UNC alumnus and grew up in Chapel Hill.

But in recent years, members of the Carolina family have increasingly been the recipients of Habitat housing.

In 2009, 14 of the 18 families selected to receive Habitat homes locally were headed by a university or UNC Health Care employee. When then-student Megan Jones saw that, she challenged the Carolina family to think bigger and do more. How can we set out to tackle society's most challenging problems and not address what's happening in our own back yard?

Megan, who graduated in May, came up with the idea of UNC Build a Block, and her vision is being carried out by a team of students now. UNC Build a Block is a partnership between the Carolina community and Habitat for Humanity of Orange County to build 10 houses for university and UNC Health Care employees in the Phoenix Place subdivision. Work on five houses began in September, and families should be able to move in early next year. Work on the other five houses will be done during the spring semester.

The response to the need for volunteer workers has been great, with nearly all the fall construction dates quickly filled. But to make these dreams become a reality, you also need money, lots of it -- $35,000 to sponsor each house. And that's where my wife, Patti, stepped in.

This is not a university-funded project. As a state institution, Carolina is not allowed to make donations to individual charities. So Patti -- who doesn't take no for an answer -- joined the project to help raise the $350,000 needed from several "champions" affiliated with the university. Their donations come from individual contributions, private sources and fund raisers.

These champions include UNC Habitat, the UNC Greek community, Kenan-Flagler Business School, UNC Health Care, the School of Medicine, UNC Athletics, The Rams Club, the Carolina Library Community (the School of Information and Library Science and University Libraries), Friends of Erskine Bowles, and the Employee Forum partnering with the Board of Trustees.

This last partnership is an example of the unifying aspect of UNC Build a Block. Megan's original idea was twofold: To help university employees own their own homes and to unite students, faculty and staff in working toward a common goal. That unity was in evidence at the "Building Blitz" earlier this month, a workday at Phoenix Place organized by Jackie Overton, chair of the Employee Forum; McKay Coble, chair of the Faculty Council; and Hogan Medlin, student body president.

I'm proud that our students are leading such an ambitious project, the largest Habitat project ever for a campus group. The fact that they realize, so early in life, how much they owe to the people who serve their food, wash their dishes and clean their bathrooms -- and that they want to repay that debt -- gives me new hope for the future.

In this season when we pause to count our blessings, I feel especially grateful for the way Build a Block has brought all of us together. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate family, and Carolina is proving itself to be a better family than ever with the work being done at Phoenix Place. Family takes care of its own.

To donate or serve as a volunteer for Build a Block, visit www.uncbuildablock.org.

 

 

Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at holden_thorp@unc.edu.





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