Foundations for a New Life
The Habitat for Humanity organization helps poor families get their own homes. Its mission greatly appeals to employees at WACKER POLYMERS. They have been lending their support to Habitat projects for many years – and not just with cash donations.
Holding his visitorʼs hand in both of his, Byamungu Jafari pauses briefly to savor the moment. “Welcome,” he then says; his tone is solemn, in honor of the occasion. An everyday occurrence for some, yet for him it is something special: to receive guests. In oneʼs own house.
It is a simple house, with four rooms, situated in one of the neighborhoods in the former steel producing industrial town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Jafari, a slender man wearing a bright yellow T-shirt shows us into the living room. A year ago, he moved into their home with his wife Gilberte and two sons, Mugisha and Tomas. At that time, his daughter Annick, a sunny little girl in a pink dress, had yet to be born. For the family, it was a turning point. “Our lives changed dramatically,” said the home owner. “We are more stable and happier. Weʼre doing really well.”
Flight from his native country, persecution, makeshift camps – until recently, these were the conditions that shaped the life of the 31-year-old African. The fact that he and his family now have a permanent home is thanks to the combined efforts of Habitat for Humanity and some 90 WACKER POLYMERS employees in Allentown, a neighboring town of Bethlehem. Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit organization supported by former US President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. Its goal is to offer people a chance for social stability by providing them with a home of their own: people who deserve a chance like this because they, for their part, are prepared to invest energy and effort.
Habitatʼs philosophy is: People who live in decent homes gain far more than a roof over their heads. Especially for poor families, a house represents emotional security and a sound basis, enabling them to live better and healthier lives – within the family and in the workplace. This is why the organization helps them to build a home – providing land, building material, money, and volunteers who offer their services. However, it is a gift attached to conditions: the families must repay the zero-interest-rate loans they receive. Additionally, each adult must work at least 250 hours on the building site – the so-called “sweat equity.” “We offer people a helping hand. But the onus is on them to pull themselves up,” said Deb Cummins, Executive Director of the Lehigh Valley Habitat for Humanity.
Donations and Muscle Power
This principle appealed to WACKER POLYMERS staff. In 2010, following a suggestion made by Doug Timmel, the then senior director of Sales in North America, and Scott Borst, then Vice President of Construction Polymers, they agreed to support Habitat projects. Since that time, donations of material goods and cash have averaged around $17,500 annually. Furthermore, 14 Allentown-based WACKER POLYMERS employees helped by supplying their muscle power: they painted and installed flooring. The company gives employees one eight-hour day for volunteer time per year. “They get back more than they put it in and are so enthusiastic about how fulfilling the experience was for them,” reports Deborah Matelan, senior chemist at WACKER POLYMERS, who coordinated the collaboration with Habitat. Several employees actually volunteer their own personal time beyond their usual eight-hour work day schedule.
Matelan is committed to the project. With great vigor, she enlisted helpers, planned their program and furnished them with information. “It is time consuming, but I do it gladly. I want the cooperation to be a success.” She approves of the idea that everyone involved benefits: the families get a house and a home, the volunteers have fun and feel good about themselves and, by serving the community, the company responsibly enhances its reputation by giving back to the community. In the USA, it is even more important for a company to assume social responsibility than in Germany. “When it comes to sustainability, very few people think of the social aspect,” says Matelan. “But as a company, we must take an interest in our surroundings and the people who live here, and offer our support.”
For Habitat’s Deb Cummins, WACKER’s contribution is especially important, because it is long-term and personal. “Many companies sign a check and then disappear,” she stated. “With WACKER, it is totally different.” After finishing the Jafariʼs home, the employees helped rehabilitate an existing house for another Habitat-qualified family. This year, they extended their volunteer efforts to support Habitat’s ReStore – a facility that resells donated new and used home furnishings and home improvement items at very affordable prices.
For some, the project is so important that they have asked Matelan to keep them on the volunteer list after they retire. And, equally important, they also appeal to their business partners to support the project. “One of our customers donated large quantities of paint,” remembers Matelan. “The employees who provided the paint were so impressed by the project that they also registered as volunteers.” The paint suppliers worked side-by-side with the WACKER POLYMERS volunteers.” It is like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger as it rolls along.
Houses for over Three Million People
Habitat selects program beneficiaries with great care. Of the many interested families seeking assistance in Allentown and the surrounding area each year, fewer than 5 percent are accepted. “People who are in debt or have declared bankruptcy will have a much more difficult time qualifying for the program,” declares Cummins, adding: “Even during the financial crisis, we did not have a single foreclosure.” This is especially important because the organization depends on the repayments for new loans; it works like a self-renewing fund. Founded in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1976, the organization has built 600,000 houses to date, providing homes for over three million people.
The Jafari family, too, have now joined the ranks of these home owners. They were victims of the conflict between the warring Tutsi and Hutu tribes in Central Africa. Originally from Burundi, Byamungu Jafariʼs parents fled during the civil war in 1972 to the neighboring country of what is now known as Republic of Congo. A few years later, unrest there caused the family to flee once again, this time to Tanzania. For over ten years, they lived in primitive conditions in camps where Byamungu was at least able to attend classes and complete his schooling. He then began teaching younger students. In 2007, the go-ahead was given to UNHCR, the UNʼs refugee agency, for a few hundred homeless families to enter the USA. The Jafaris were among the lucky few. Initially, they were reluctant to go to a strange and unfamiliar place. “But what other option did we have? No one wanted us,” said Mr. Jafari.
After relocating to Pennsylvania, they lived in extremely cramped emergency and temporary quarters, having just basic sanitation. Byamungu Jafari was fortunate enough to find employment at a supermarket warehouse; a typical starter job. He envied neighbors their car parked on the driveway; a driveway leading to their own home. To him, this seemed far beyond his reach ‒ until a friend told him about Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley.
Now they are settling down in their new life: finding a balance between what they wish for and what is possible. There is the new black sofa and the old scratched coffee table. To prevent the children from spoiling the lovely dining sets, Gilberte Jafari has covered the dining room table with a transparent plastic cover. She is proud of the washing machine that makes life so much easier. Five-year-old Tomas has just started preschool and his father dreams of becoming a teacher. To achieve this goal, heʼd have to go to college, which is expensive. He knows, because heʼs made inquiries. He looks at the floor; his face reflects his somber mood. But then, raising his eyes, he looks at his son and his living room. Who knows what is possible? With a note of hope in his voice he says: “Nobody knows what the future holds.”