Out of the holidays, a home

When you think of New York City’s Rockefeller Center at this time of the year, their famous Christmas tree probably comes to mind. It could easily be the most visible holiday tree in the world, because of its size (often close to 100 feet tall), its prominent role in many holiday movies, its presence in New York, and its annual lighting featured on live TV. But its most important role comes after the holidays, when it helps provide affordable housing for one lucky family each year.

Perhaps you’ve heard this story before, but it’s new to me. Every year for the past 9 years, the company who owns Rockefeller Center has donated the lumber from the Christmas tree to Habitat for Humanity for use in building a home. The lumber is marked with the year and “Rockefeller Center tree”. In addition, the company’s employees volunteer their time to work on the build, along with the family who will live in the home, transforming the Christmas tree into a safe and solid shelter. When these families celebrate their own holidays, in new homes far from New York City, they are surrounded by that glorious tree.

Habitat for Humanity estimates that one in four people worldwide lives in poverty housing. For almost 40 years, they have been building, rehabbing and repairing homes for people in need around the world. With the help of 2 million volunteers each year, they have served 6.8 million people in that time period, offering them hope and a chance for stability.

A lack of affordable housing affects people of all ages and races. The MacArthur Foundation is funding $25 million in research to determine what the impacts are, and how best to address the need. Their premise is that “affordable housing may be a ‘platform’ that promotes positive outcomes in education, employment, and physical and mental health…” In other words, if we address the housing issue first, other things may fall into place.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote, “If I were to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

So how does a Christmas tree live forever?  When it becomes a home, the platform on which dreams are built.

Wishing you peaceful dreams for the new year…

The “Habitastic” way to deal with stress

It’s fairly well known that practicing generosity can be an effective way of alleviating stress. Acts of kindness and volunteer work get us out of our heads and out of the “I’m the center of the universe” trap by forcing us to focus on something or someone else for a while. All of a sudden our problems don’t seem so big or overwhelming when put in the perspective of another person’s.

Sweating through a morning of hard work at a Habitat for Humanity home-build this week showed me that there are even more benefits to lending a helping hand on a regular basis. Besides the distraction from our own problems, there is the self-esteem and self-efficacy that comes from learning to do an unfamiliar job and doing it well. I can proudly say that I helped build a roof today, and that feeling of accomplishment helps to dislodge any negative thoughts about myself that might be causing stress.

imageThe hard physical work is also so unlike what most of us spend our days doing that our monkey minds shut off for a while and we are able to stay focused on the task at hand. When operating a table saw or lifting heavy trusses atop a house, keeping everyone safe and doing it right take precedence over worrying about the project at work or the problems of our children.

There’s also the camaraderie of working as a team, whether it’s with perfect strangers, co-workers, or family members. We learn about each other, strengthen existing bonds, and are reminded of the need to be good communicators. Most people very quickly fall into a rhythm of working together for the common goal.

I don’t know what brought all these people together to build a house for an unknown family. There was the young woman getting married in two weeks, stressed over wedding plans, but taking the day to build instead. There was a group of people who work in the same office given the day off for the project. Two sisters, a mother and daughter, people on vacation. Was it for fun, stress relief, a belief in the cause? Does it really matter?

Jacques Cousteau said that, “It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”