TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Topeka’s Knollwood neighborhood is home to Topeka Habitat for Humanity's largest project to date. The project will help a family of eight, who emigrated from one of the poorest nations in central Africa, take another step in realizing their American dream of owning a home.
Already, transformation is underway of the lot at 1717 SW Sieben into a roughly 2400 square foot home, complete with basement. WIBW-TV partnered with Thrivent Financial and more than 20 other community partners to make the project possible.
The Munganga Family
A gathering of the Munganga family is sure to be filled with smiles and laughter. Still at home with Bora and Jeanne are are 16-year-old Deborah and 13-year-old Joel, and the little ones, six-year-old Gad and four-year-old Josiah.
Gad and Josiah look on during the wall raising event
The two oldest children, 19-year-old Elijah and 21-year-old Esther are in college. To be able to state that fact is something Bora and Jeanne could once only dream for their children. They come from the small central African country of Burundi, where going to college isn't an opportunity most kids have.
As Bora explains, when you don't have money to buy food, how would you begin to pay for college?
Bora, though, was one of the lucky ones. He finished three years of college in nutrition studies, then moved to Burundi from Congo. It was in Burundi, during youth training, that he met Jeanne. They soon married and started a family.
But feeding even one person in Burundi is difficult enough, let alone trying to raise a family. Bora says he learned of a visa lottery, where, if selected, a family might be able to leave Africa.
Bora was not selected on that first try and it took three years before Bora could apply again. Six months later, he received a letter from the United States saying he was selected.
The next challenge for Bora was filling out the form in English, when the family's first language is Swahili. He returned the form to the U.S. in June of that year and prayed. In November he received another letter instructing him to go to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, to get his visa.
In a time when money was already tight, he wasn't sure how he would pay for the trip. He made a list and contacted everyone he knew for help. Through word of mouth, he raised the $8,000 needed to move his family.
The Munganga family at the wall raising event
The Mungangas arrived in the U.S. in April 2009. They planned to move to Boston, but, when planned housing fell through, a friend put him touch with someone in Topeka who welcomed the family into their home.
Bora says he is amazed at all the assistance the family has received. He says he has instilled two things in his children. The first is to have faith. The second is to get an education. Elijah now dreams of becoming a cardiologist.
Bora also is working to give his family something else - their own home. A friend from Africa who moved to Arizona was helped by Habitat for Humanity, and encouraged Jeanne to contact Topeka's Habitat. After another friend at church suggested the same thing, Bora went to the office and applied.
The call they received from Topeka Habitat Executive Director Michelle De La Isla, Bora said, was God answering a prayer.
The family is now hard at work on their "sweat equity" hours. Bora spends a lot of time at the Habitat ReStore, doing whatever needs to be done.
The next move will be into their home come fall.
"All the people helping - it's amazing to me," Bora said. "God is doing something amazing. I say thank you to everybody."
The Habitat Process
Topeka Habitat for Humanity is on track to build homes for seven families this year. Besides the Munganga family's home on Sieben, students at Seaman, Shawnee Heights and Washburn Rural high schools are building homes that will be moved to sites around town. The organization also is partnering with the Prairie Band Potawatomie nation on a home and two more are under construction in the 1800 block of SW Filmore.
Finding families to fill the homes is a process that's both simple in how it works, but also complex in that many families don't know it could be an option for them.
Executive Director Michelle De La Isla
Executive Director Michelle De La Isla says Habitat works with family who are not able to become homeowners mainly because of the interest tacked on to the monthly mortgage payment. With a home through Habitat, families are still paying for a home, but the mortgage Habitat gives them is interest free.
De La Isla says qualifying families are living 60 percent below the median income, which means they have to to make a minimum of $17,000, but, for one person, they cannot make anymore than $27,000 a year.
A person interested in applying for a home through Habitat may first call the Habitat office at 785-234-4322. They will answer 10 screening questions. If they pass those, they are routed to Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc. where they will be asked to bring supporting documentation to ensure they meet the requirements.
From there, the paperwork comes to the Habitat office for review. Once De La Isla verifies it, she will contact the applicant to make sure they are willing to commit to the mortgage as well as the required sweat equity hours, which is anywhere from 200 to 400 hours of volunteer time, depending on the number of family members over the age of 18 who will live in the home. Final approval then comes from the organization's Board of Directors.
Once approved, applicants begin working their sweat equity, whether that be in the office, at build sites or the Habitat ReStore. They will be able to start making decisions for their home after they've completed 50 percent of their sweat equity hours and paid 50 percent of their down payment.
In addition to the mortgage being interest free, it also tends to be less than the home's value due to volunteer labor and business partnerships. De La Isla says a typical Habitat home may have an open market construction cost of $120,000 but a mortgage of only $80- to $90,00. The result is that homeowners walk through the door with immediate equity.
"We are not a hand out. We are a hand up," De La Isla says. "One of the things we've learned through time is that if we give you something and you have no stock into it, there is no deeper appreciation. Habitat is a process of learning and empowerment. We don't want to give the homeowners something they're just going to take and not appreciate. They have earned this. By the time they get the key to the home, they have invested so much sweat equity, so much emotional equity, so much physical equity, that they become stockholders in their home and their neighborhood."
De La Isla says that connection is what gives Habitat the potential to change the faces of neighborhoods. She says the expectation is the homeowner is not just going to build the house, but they will become an integral part of the community and they will give back what they got from the organization.
"It's bringing the homeowner into the neighborhood and changing their lives completely," she said.
Homeowners Give Back
Habitat for Humanity's potential to transform neighborhoods is embodied in a block of Southeast Swygart.
Heather Augustine and Mirida Osborne say their lives were changed by becoming Habitat homeowners.
Mirida Osborne moved to the block in 2011 with her children, 10-year-old Gavin and six-year-old Karma.
Before building her home, Mirida says she was working two part-time jobs and still not earning enough to meet the demands of a monthly mortgage payment. A woman at one of her jobs, with the Parents as Teachers program at Kansas Children's Service League, suggested she might qualify for Habitat, but Mirida didn't think that was the case. She says she always thought Habitat was for people who didn't have a source of income.
Mirida applied anyway and, a couple weeks later, heard she was approved. Mirida says the satisfaction when she received her keys.. was incredible.
"It started a chain reaction of good events," she said. "I have a stable place to live. I didn't have to worry about getting kicked out because there's no landlord to deal with. My kids are able to go outside and play and have a good time. I am happy and relaxed and have advanced in my job because of that."
Mirida also is thrilled with the neighbors who moved in next door a year later.
Heather Augustine and Mirida have been friends since they were seven-years old. Like Mirida, Heather and her seven-year-old daughter, Riley, were looking for something permanent. Heather says they were renting a friend's basement, but she wanted to give Riley a house with her own bedroom and a sidewalk outside to ride her bicycle.
"The American dream," Heather said. "What we're supposed to have."
It was while helping Mirida paint her Habitat home that her friend suggested Heather apply for the program herself. But Heather, too, needed convincing. She thought Habitat was for larger families who had difficulty finding a home, not for one woman and one little girl.
Heather finally agreed to apply and was accepted - just at the time Habitat had a vacant lot right next to Mirida! They moved in spring 2012.
"It just took us to a new level for our future," Heather said. "I can plan a future now. I know where we're staying. We can do things we enjoy, especially with our animals It's allowed us to foster."
But getting the keys didn't end the story for these two friends. In fact, they're just getting started. It's not just about getting a house, they say. It's about paying it back to the community.
Their efforts will start almost literally in their backyards. A drainage ditch runs behind their block. It's overgrown with weeds and brush and is a dumping ground for trash. The pair applied for and won a $2500 beautification grant to begin cleanup. Eventually, they hope to get lighting installed, put in some benches, develop a community garden and, someday, add pocket parks where kids can play.
It all started because of Habitat.
"It's opened a lot of opportunity that one person really can make a difference," Heather said.
Mirida added, "I want the community to come together just like I saw them do when I was building my house."
If you'd like to support Mirida and Heather in their neighborhood improvement effort, contact them through the Topeka Habitat office, 785-234-4322.
A major partner in building the home for the Munganga family is Thrivent Financial, through its Thrivent Builds program. Thrivent donated $65,000 to the project, which amounts to half the cost of the home.
Thrivent Financial is a major sponsor of the latest Habitat house through its Thrivent Builds program.
Tanner Knowland, financial associate with Thrivent, says the Munganga home is the organization's fourth in Topeka. It is one of 126 homes in 35 states that will be built through the program this year.
Tim Zitter, a regional partner with Thrivent, says Habitat fits with the company's goal of supporting people to be the best they can be.
Thrivent Financial is a faith-based, Fortune 500 financial services membership organization with a membership of nearly 2.5 million.
Thrivent is the largest non-government sponsor for Habitat for Humanity.
By the end of 2014, Thrivent will have committed more than $200 million to build or repair more than 4,300 homes in the U.S. and around the world.
WIBW-TV's Commitment to Community
The Munganga family's need for a home came along at the perfect time for WIBW-TV, says general manager Jim Ogle.
WIBW-TV celebrated 60 years on the air in November 2013. In looking for a way to mark that milestone, Ogle says he wanted a way to make it, not about the television station, but about the community. He says he felt it was important to give back to the community that has shown so much support to WIBW over the years.
Ogle says the Habitat for Humanity project is an opportunity to be involved with something that will leave a lasting benefit for the community.
Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast says Habitat for Humanity is an ideal partner for community improvement efforts.
Wolgast notes that Habitat homes are not restricted to one particular area in Topeka, but, instead, have been built in many neighborhoods throughout the city.
In addition, Wolgast says, Habitat helps people achieve their dreams of home ownership. He says homes are a large part of a person's identity. He says one of the most important things a community can do is support people in achieving a home of their own.
400 Volunteers + 30 minutes = 40 walls
The Mungunga family raises the wall of their new home.
Imagine a ballroom filled with the sounds of hundreds of hammers, banging away in unison.
That was the soundtrack for Payless ShoeSource's annual Customer Celebration Meeting in February. Executive Vice President Stephen Gish says the company always tries to include a community service aspect at the gathering. This year, it was Habitat for Humanity.
Payless already committed financial support to a Habitat home through Seaman High School this year and decided to build on that commitment with a hands-on activity at the CCM. So, in that ballroom, the 400 attendees added goggles and gloves to their business casual attire and banged out 40 walls in 30 minutes.
Gish says the event was capped with a visit from the Munganga family, who thanked the workers in person for blessing them with their support.
Gish says employees told organizers of the conference that the Habitat activity was one that will stay with them for a long time to come.
Wall Raising Ceremony
On a brisk March morning, sponsors, contractors, Chamber of Commerce ambassadors and the Munganga family gathered to officially launch construction of their home.
Michelle De La Isla, Topeka Habitat executive director, urged attendees to take a look at the family seated in the front row.
"You are changing their lives," she said.
The highlight of the morning featured executives and volunteers from Payless "handing off" one of the walls they built to representatives from Thrivent Financial and WIBW-TV and the Munganga family. The wall was then ceremoniously raised upright, signifying the start of construction.
Bora and Jeanne Munganga took the opportunity to address the gathering, wishing them all God's blessings.
"Thank you to every one of you," Bora said.
Work Gets Underway
It didn't take long for the real work to begin once the ceremonial festivities cleared the scene.
Cutom Tree Care brings down a tree in seconds
Greg Gathers with Custom Tree Care moved a crew onto the site that afternoon. They were removing three trees from the site. He said it was important for them to get their work done as soon as possible because the trees needed to be out of the way before other contractors could move in - and those contractors wanted to get started right away, too.
They were serious. Within a week of the wall raising, Concrete Unlimited was at the site, starting the ground work for the foundation and basement.
WIBW-TV will be following the Munganga family Habitat project through its completion, which is expected in September 2014.