National Association of Realtors Returns to Volunteer With NOAHH

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The men and women in the National Association of Realtors (NAR) first began volunteering with NOAHH in 2002, when their convention first came to New Orleans and first partnered with a Habitat affiliate. They worked on Annunciation St. with homeowner Rosalee Lewis, Nelle Postell, realtor of Charleston, SC, designed a basket weave walkway for the home that, despite the effort involved, they managed to finish in one day.

As their conventions have a four year cycle, their next scheduled convention in New Orleans was in 2006. The destruction brought by Hurricane Katrina made many regular conventions hesitant to return, but NAR was the first–and largest–convention to return.

Len Ferber, a realtor out of Strasburg, PA, served on the convention advance team that year. A few weeks after the storm, he and a small group toured the city. He described the flood waters and the debris, of seeing vehicles and houses scattered, of seeing New Orleans East–where the group volunteered this year–under 8 feet of water.

“It just broke your heart to see the devastation that was here. But people here were strong. They were wonderful, they were courteous, they were nice. Look how nice this place has come back,” he said, standing in the back yard of a new NOAHH build on Haydel St.

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The Central Business District, where the convention center is located, and French Quarter were some of the first parts of the city to come back. Though they suffered less damage than New Orleans East or the Ninth Ward, there was an enormous amount of debris and trash to be cleared out in those early days. The advance team was committed, however, to returning to New Orleans, and they were able to convince others to return. By the time the convention arrived, the CBD and French Quarter had already begun their recovery. NAR returned to volunteer with NOAHH, this time working in the nascent Musicians’ Village. On their trip, they learned that the home on Annunciation had survived the storm with minimal damage, much to their relief.

In response to the storm, NAR began a program to build 54 homes across the Gulf Coast region affected by Hurricane Katrina, several of which were in the New Orleans area. They challenged realtors in every state to raise the money for a home, and many participated in the Homes-in-a-Box program that saw people across the nation building house frames and shipping them to affected areas. They created special beads for each state to raise money, and many realtors made a point to have one from every state. In all, they raised $4.25 million for affected areas and contributed 57,000 man-days of volunteer labor in various recovery projects, from Habitat builds to park restoration to gutting and more. Realtors from many states sent their own teams, and Ferber brought 10 teams of 20 down for week-long builds.

“Thanks to all the realtors who pitched in and raised this money,” Ferber said. “We were just the hammer and the nail people. That’s all we did… We’re here to help. Real estate is our business.”

They returned in 2010 and again this year. About 150 realtors joined NOAHH on site, working on three new homes and an ABWK project in New Orleans East. Between foundation work, flooring, framing, and painting, they worked almost every phase of home building, and worked alongside the homeowners. Their hard work immediately had an impact, as homeowner Quenetria “Que” Harris arrived to find her future home–which she had previously only seen the floor system of–with wall frames already up.

“When I pulled up to the house this morning, it gave me life,” she said. “It looked like a real house now. It’s overwhelming.”

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Harris is an employee of the Hotel Monteleone who had previously volunteered with NOAHH through her work. After seeing posters about the program, she decided it might be the solution to her overcrowded home. She and her three year old son live with six other people, and she says she wants to give her son a space of his own. In her three-bedroom Habitat home with a nice, fenced-in backyard, she will get that and more.

Jan Caldwell of Orlando, FL, and her husband, Bob, cite meeting homeowners as their favorite part of volunteering. The transformative effect of homeownership was made clear to them.

“It’s amazing,” said Bob. “The best experience I’ve had is when a little girl tugs on your pant leg and wants to show you her first bedroom. She never had her own bedroom before.”

They also returned to visit other homeowners whose homes they had helped build, including the site on America St. where they worked in 2010 and the home in Musicians’ Village from 2006. Every convention, Bob and Jan Caldwell, Nell Postell, Len Ferber, and Mike and Betsy Owen make a point of signing up for the Habitat build days early, to make sure they get a spot. Not only have they been volunteering at NOAHH sites since 2002, they’re all active in their local Habitat affiliates. They share a sense of camaraderie that keeps them volunteering even 12 years later, and NOAHH looks forward to seeing them–and all of our friends with NAR–when they next come to town!

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