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Building New Lives : A local Habitat for Humanity chapter travels to Tijuana to help construct homes for needy residents.


As spring break approaches, many students at Cal Lutheran University are looking forward to a vacation. But those hanging around with 66-year-old Mark Mathews of Westlake had better be prepared for some back-breaking work.

Thirteen students are volunteers with the CLU Habitat for Humanity International chapter established in 1990. And under the leadership of Mathews, founder and senior mentor, the students will join accounting professor Carol Johnson to spend Sunday through March 19 constructing houses for needy residents of Tijuana.

Equipped with some Spanish construction vocabulary and donated work gloves, the CLU team will join a work camp operated by the San Diego affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.

"From the ground up, we will be working on 20 houses of 50 that have been in construction," Mathews said. "The genius of Habitat is that we will have professionals who serve as our mentors--often retired contractors and specialists in areas like masonry or electrical. So they teach us how to build as we construct together."

Mathews emphasized that the group is made up entirely of volunteers. "We pay our own way to work there. The San Diego Habitat charges us $20 per day, per person to provide three meals a day, a dorm to sleep in with our sleeping bags. They access $10 of that for meals and water. The other $10 is used for construction costs. So we're helping to finance the building as well as paying our own living costs."

Since Mathews, a former president and business professor at the university, retired in 1991, he has devoted his efforts to building and repairing houses for eligible low-income individuals.

"I had been interested in Habitat as long as I had read about it when former President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter went to New York to rehabilitate an old warehouse into apartments in the Bronx. Then in 1988, our family was involved with 980 other volunteers in the 'miracle on the border'--a Jimmy Carter project--that built 100 houses in one week," he said.

"I like to have private initiative to solve public problems, rather than turning it over to Sacramento," he added.

Habitat for Humanity International is a nonprofit ecumenical Christian housing organization established in 1976 and dedicated to eliminating poverty housing worldwide, according to Melanie McDonald, director of media relations at the group's headquarters in Americus, Ga. An estimated 200,000 volunteers per year have worked in affiliates or local chapters that operate independently throughout the United States and in 40 countries, she said.

"To be eligible for aid, you have to be in the category called poor," Mathews said. "And you have to put in 500 hours of 'sweat equity,' working first on houses for others and then on your own house.

"In Ventura County, our affiliate defines a poor family of four as having an annual income of $21,800 or less."

But the family needing the house, he said, has to have the means or income to reimburse Habitat for Humanity for that which has not been donated. That usually means materials, since all the labor is donated.

"In Mexico, that amounts to about $3,000 per house," he said. "But in Chula Vista, that came out to about $40,000."

The money, he said, is paid back to Habitat over a 20-year period, with no interest charged. "Habitat can finance it from private--not government--donations," he said.

"In Ventura County, we work through our Ventura County affiliate located in Oxnard. About once a month, we go out to a site in the county and spend a Saturday rehabilitating houses. It might mean a new roof, new masonry or a front porch. But we don't beautify houses. That's not our purpose," Mathews said.

Vision Habitat, which collects used and discarded eyeglasses, is a big part of the program. That group, organized by Mathews a year ago, he said, organizes drives to collect eyeglasses, which are sent in 55-gallon drums to Habitat in Zaire and sold at moderate prices.

"The money for one barrel of glasses pays for building a house in that country," he said.

Vision Habitat is run in the Conejo Valley by Rita Etcheverry, a retired senior citizen living in Thousand Oaks.

"I like Habitat because I'm sick of black-tie fund-raising dinners, worrying about what I should wear, and the fancy offices that add to the high overhead of many charities,," Etcheverry said. "But this is so basic--so simple and grass roots. If I want to go pound nails someplace, I can get out of myself and think about who I am helping. And the key to Habitat is I feel useful."


Kjersti Berg, president of CLU Habitat for Humanity, will discuss the Tijuana trip, and local and international Habitat projects from noon to 1 p.m. April 20 in the Cal Lutheran Women's Resource Center, Room E11, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. Admission is free. For information on Habitat for Humanity projects or Vision Habitat, call the CLU Habitat House office, 493-3869, or the Ventura County affiliate office at 167 Lambert St., Suite 109, Oxnard, 485-6065.

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