Habitat volunteers embody Catholic social teaching

Jan 12, 2023
Parishioners of Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs prepare to frame a Habitat for Humanity home. The group serves every third Saturday of the month. Participants of all ages join in building to enable affordable housing for others. (COURTESY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY SEMINOLE_APOPKA)

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS  |  Undeterred by the sweat dripping from her brow, Michele Brindle paints the exterior of a Habitat for Humanity home. It’s hot and humid, but she sticks it out. She came to Habitat for Humanity as a way to serve God and never looked back.

Now on her sixth build, the early retiree describes herself “like a big kid.” Her curiosity and fervent desire to learn makes her fearless when approaching tasks about which she knows nothing.

Since she began volunteering with Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs, she has learned framing, how to attach drywall and how to use a nail gun. She volunteers alongside her sons, one of whom is a regular volunteer.

“It’s a huge learning curve and appreciation for how a home comes together,”  she said, adding that learning curve also covers future homeowners who must put in hours of sweat equity themselves. “I always told my sons, if someone is having a struggle, you don’t push them further down. You give a hand and help lift them up. It goes very much with what Catholics believe.”

Dennis Vandendriessche, an Annunciation parishioner, coordinates 50 to 75 parish volunteers to serve Habitat for Humanity Seminole-Apopka once a month. He said he is guided by his parish’s mission statement: “Annunciation hearts are burning to love, know and serve God by loving and serving others.”

“For me that’s starting every day with gratitude,” Vandendriessche said. “It makes me thankful and appreciative for all I’ve been blessed with and it’s a great feeling to help other great families achieve their dream of home ownership. I am so thankful that I was called to be this liaison.”

Asked if he ever worries he won’t have coverage, he affirmed, “God provides.”

This Christian belief to lift up the less fortunate is the reason Habitat for Humanity came into being. It was founded by Clarence Jordan, a farmer who lived in the Koinonia Farm community in Georgia. The word koinonia means “fellowship of Christians sharing common gifts.” Jordan saw his workers had no decent place to live, so he developed an idea of coming together to build affordable homes for those in need. He worked with others of the same mindset to form Habitat for Humanity.

Deacon Joe Gassman, Secretary for Leadership and Parish Life at the Diocese of Orlando, has served Habitat for Humanity for 12 years as a volunteer, board member, site supervisor, operations director and president/CEO. Today he helps his Annunciation Parish team whenever possible. He said when parishes get involved in a build it becomes a “fellowship opportunity.”

“It’s Catholic social teaching,” he said, adding he is still friends with the homeowner of the first home he helped build. “It is very Christian to reach out to the poor, those pushed to the fringe for whatever reason.”

The deacon recalled early on, as he finished the slab on a home and got ready to raise the walls, he sat and looked at the neighborhood where he was volunteering.

“I realized just how poor some folks are, and that really touched me,” he recalled. “Every time I did a home visit for an applicant it was a surprise to see, people are really living like this. They’re being charged ridiculous amounts of money to live like that. It was motivation to keep building.”

He felt his experience allowed him “to plant seeds so people could understand the other side. That there are people that struggle. They’re good people. They work hard. They have good jobs; they just can’t afford to live in a decent place.”

Proud owner Xiomara López stands in front of her home. (COURTESY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY GREATER ORLANDO-OSCEOLA)

Xiomara López is one such homeowner. In 2020, Annunciation parishioners began constructing 22 homes in the Juniper Bend subdivision in Apopka. López then lived in a cramped three bedroom, two bath apartment in an unfavorable neighborhood with her son, William, who became paraplegic after a motorcycle accident two years earlier. Bringing him home after a five-month hospital stay, she discovered she couldn’t push his wheelchair from room to room, much less make it into the small bathroom. Reducing work hours to become William’s fulltime caregiver, she couldn’t afford the $1,200 rent.

She heard about Habitat and applied for home ownership. Although she was denied, she applied again several months later. This time, she was approved. She attended financial management and home maintenance classes to prepare, and she put in the required hours on her build.

Moving in day was Dec. 30, 2021, when she entered the baby blue home clad in white trim – colors she selected herself. She was filled with gratitude and joy.

“I even picked out the color of my cabinets, counter tops and type of floor,” she said proudly.

Her first step was to call Vocationist Father Mathew Vettath, St. Francis of Assisi parochial administrator, to bless her home. She pays $800 a month for home she will own, moves her son freely about the house, and feels safe in her neighborhood. Every evening she prays for her neighbors and their community. She keeps a tidy lawn and finds, “Every flower blooms here.”

“I am proud of my home,” she said. “You need to focus on what you want for the future and make your priorities … and thank God for everything.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, January 12, 2023