December 12, 2006

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Shacking up for a good cause

by Amy Anselm


Students camp out, collecting change.

"Spare change for Habitat? Got any spare change for Habitat?"

A student in pink pajama pants holds out a shiny metal cooking pot.

A girl with a messenger bag over one shoulder slows down, patting her pockets. The panhandler smiles. "All proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity of Wake County. Our goal is $18,000." A few coins bounce off the bottom of the pan, and the benefactor continues on her way to class.

The pajama-clad panhandler stands in the middle of campus at N.C. State University. Behind her spreads a shanty town of sixteen shacks pieced together from scrap lumber and tarps. Each one houses campus student organizations competing to raise donations for Habitat for Humanity. They scavenged for lumber, built the shacks, and have spent the week living and fundraising in the Brickyard, the main student gathering ground. What is this mess? It's Shack-A-Thon 2006.

Unorthodox? Definitely. Loud and messy? Just a little bit. Effective? You bet.

Why are the students and organizations competing? It helps us raise more for Habitat. To set a challenge for next year's group. Bragging rights. We came in dead last last year... we can't do it two years running!

What is a Shack-A-Thon?

Mix one part inspiration, three parts good will, two parts dedication, and a dash of competition. For best results, sprinkle with power tools.

"Shack-a-Thon began long before my time at State," said senior Kathy Fraley, president of the NCSU chapter of Habitat for Humanity. "It began with the chapter building a shack on the Brickyard to raise awareness about poverty housing. Student organizations approached the chapter wanting to get involved. The next year there were more shacks, and the year after that even more. Now we have to turn student organizations away because we're limited by fire safety rules."

The event grew. The chapter started taking donations on-site. Competition sprang up between the participating organizations to see who could raise the most money. Rules and incentives for the competition evolved.

Shack-A-Thon 2006 was held the week of September 25th, and student organizations hoping to participate begin raising donations weeks before the event, which allows them to make a bid for a shack. The minimum bid is $100, but the lowest winning bid in 2006 came in at $280. The highest was $950.

Groups that don't think they can meet the minimum bid band together. There have been as many as eight different organizations working together for a single shack. It's more than interaction; it's collaboration and networking, all for community service. And when an engineering sorority, a service fraternity, and a student home-builder's society can play nice in one tiny shack for a week... there's something very right going on.

The shacks in the brickyard.

The groups of students build and man their shacks, and members spend the week getting to know each other, taking shifts panhandling, and sleeping wadded up on the same hard pallet floor. It's an unorthodox way to bond. But a lasting one.

And the week leaves a lasting impression.

The local affiliate, Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, enjoys working with the college chapter and seeing Shack-A-Thon every year.

"The shacks are creative in style and informative in function," said Caroline Cate, Habitat Wake spokesperson. "It's so vital to continue raising awareness for the need to help local low-income families move to safe, affordable housing."

And each year the students hope to raise more than awareness.

Small shacks, big money

Now $18,000 is a lot of cash, and getting the donations isn't easy. It's panhandling on a college campus where a few dollars in a student's pocket is that day's lunch.

"The trick is just to get up the nerve to ask people," said junior Lisa Thompson, the vice president of the NCSU chapter. "I think that out of every eight to ten people you ask, one will give you some money."

And there's no rule that said the fundraising has to be panhandling.

"Every year groups come up with more creative ways to raise money," Thompson said. "This year, one shack sold water balloons to throw at a UNC sign and another group sold snacks for passersby to feed a really cute dog."

Even the graffiti has a purpose.

Shack-A-Thon participants have also learned to be persistent. To combat the common "I don't have cash with me" excuse, one group set up a PayPal account. Their shack included a laptop connected to the library's wireless Internet, all run from a car battery. The same battery that kept their red Christmas lights on all night.

Over time, students have learned that you've got to get people's attention, and not just so they'll donate. The goal isn't just to get them to throw some change in a cup. You want them to walk away smiling. And thinking.

"We want the people who work and sleep in the shacks--or even those that just walk by the Brickyard and see all of the shacks out there--we want them to think about all of the people in the world who do not have a safe, affordable place to live," said Thompson.

"While we could all dart back to the comfort of our rooms to get out of the rain or to take a shower, the people who live in those conditions every day don't have that luxury. After Shack-A-Thon, when everyone returns back to their comfortable beds and their air-conditioned rooms, I hope that it inspires students to work to help others."

The fundraiser is one way the chapter reaches out into the community to help, and many donations come from sectors outside campus.

"It's difficult to estimate, but I would say that a majority of the funds raised come from corporate and individual contributions," said Fraley.

"Many organizations go out into the community to raise their initial bids," said Thompson. "It's neat to see checks coming in from parents and outside businesses."

The fundraising is fun and friendly, but it's in earnest. After all, more than prestige comes with being one of the top earners.

As Fraley explained, the top four fund-raising shacks receive free wood and a guaranteed spot on the Brickyard for the next year. So they get to skip over the bidding process and can forgo dumpster-diving for scrap wood.

To supply enough lumber and building supplies for five shacks (the four winners, plus the official Habitat shack), the student chapter begins collecting donations months ahead of time. They ask for scrap lumber as early as June, storing it at the local Habitat ReUse Center.

And lumber's not all. "This year, eight local businesses donated their food and services,and we are very grateful," said Fraley. Coffee and donuts donated every morning and dinners every evening mean the participants don't have to leave the site--except, of course, for classes.

"There's a feeling within the organization that both the university and the community are there, cheering us on," said Thompson. "We're an organization that exists for the community, but we would be nothing without its support."

What is Habitat?

For these students, it all starts with the chapter.

"We have over 2000 students on our Habitat listserv," said Fraley. "Of these, roughly 100 members are active. Then we have a team of 18 officers."

The chapter collects no dues from its members, and has helped sponsor 10 Habitat houses with the Wake County affiliate. In addition to working on a house site every Saturday, they also run additional demolition crews, help with events like the Habitat Hike, tutor the children of Habitat homeowners and students at the local Boys' and Girls' clubs, and they spend every spring and fall break building houses as a part of the Collegiate Challenge.

Most of this work is done with the local Wake County Habitat affiliate, one that reflects their strong work ethic. Habitat Wake has raised more than $3.8 billion and built 40 homes in the Fiscal Year 2006, and laid the foundation for the 300th Habitat home to be built in the county since the affiliate was established in 1985.

The need for this work is still great. For example, more than 3,100 families live in substandard conditions in Wake County, where fair market rent is $1,068 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. But Habitat homes are sold at no profit and financed with 0% interest loans. So mortgage on a three-bedroom Habitat house in Wake county is approximately $500--and that's including homeowners' insurance and property taxes.

And homeowners in Wake County can choose from more than 25 house plans, which are chosen and adapted to fit the local neighborhoods, and many get to work on their own house along with the volunteers. Together they can alter the kitchen layout, shuffle the size and location of closets, choose their shutters, set up their paint schemes, and arrange many other little details that help personalize the home.

That's what the campus Habitat volunteers love. Working alongside families to build a home. Spreading Habitat's message and goal to other students and to the local community. That's why they spend months organizing the fundraiser, and why they look forward to spending a week living in a shack.

"Shack-A-Thon is our largest fundraiser, and it has allowed us to provide a huge part of the sponsorship for a home in Wake County," said Thompson. "But we hope that everyone who has contributed to Shack-A-Thon realizes that we're sleeping out in shacks so that deserving families who are staying in substandard houses today can have a decent place to call home in the future."

So how successful was Shack-A-Thon 2006? The final count is in at $20,217.81. Enough to fund a third of a house.

About Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit housing ministry founded in 1976. Habitat seeks to eliminate poverty housing all over the world by making safe, decent, affordable housing a matter of conscience and faith in action. NCSU Habitat is a chapter of Wake County Habitat, which is an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.