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Milledgeville-Baldwin County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Murali Thirumal explains the dire need of revitalization efforts in the Harrisburg community Monday. The Woodhaven area is just a portion of the local Habitat’s focus area for conducting quality of life surveys.

When a small group of local college students decided they wanted to help make a difference within the community, the mission of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Habitat for Humanity in the Harrisburg neighborhood was the perfect match. In April, the volunteers kicked off their efforts to improve the quality of life for Harrisburg community residents by conducting surveys for Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI).

“When we went into the neighborhood, they weren’t receptive at first, and I think that was because of our generational gap,” said Katie Smoak, a Habitat volunteer and Georgia College student. “Each of us got paired with someone from the neighborhood, known as block captains, to help us give out surveys. We just wanted to do something that would help the community by serving others.”

Annie Beckom, a block captain, has been a Harrisburg community resident for 45 years. Living in a neighborhood with dark street corners and rundown homes, she is worried about the level of safety on Laverne Circle. 

“I saw a lot of old houses looking bad. A lot of people living here are on a fixed income, so they really need help,” Beckom said Monday while showing The Union-Recorder a nearby revitalized home. “I encourage anyone who can spare their time to volunteer to help do just a little bit of paint or cook a meal; anything is appreciated. If we fix up our neighborhood then maybe others will be encouraged to do the same in their neighborhood. If we come together as a community anything is possible.”

Under the NRI, the Habitat volunteers have already surveyed about 50 percent of the 100 homeowners within the focus area.

“Until there are tangible results visible to the community, there’s going to be reluctance, but tangible resources occurred during the week of River of Life,” said Murali Thirumal, local Habitat executive director. “Baldwin County Commissioner Tommy French [District 2] came on our board, took the ball and rolled with it. We wrote a letter to the residents and him and I both signed it. The surveys came to a slow stop during the summer because our sale group has been gone. When River of Life came out, everyone started seeing what was happening and it really generated a lot of enthusiasm in the community. River of Life and Habitat are certainly looking for a long-term relationship for all other Habitat projects.”

Through NRI, Habitat is able to serve more families by responding to community needs with an expanded array of products, services and partnerships. According to The State of the Nation’s Housing 2010, roughly one in six Americans is in need of a decent, affordable place to live. 

“We want to get people to participate and help those less fortunate improve their house and improve their quality of living. We have to get the community together and assist in getting these jobs done. Some homes in the area are in better shape than others, but instead of getting just one or two homes in good condition, the aspect of the [NRI] is to get the entire area aesthetically beautiful so people feel better about their property,” French said. “I want to thank all of the people that have been generous in helping Habitat. The more volunteers we get the more homes we can do. People should come see what Habitat has done and see some of the smiles that Habitat has brought.”

The surveys ask homeowners a series of questions regarding their quality of life. Once all surveys are complete, the local Habitat plans to compile data to see if quality of life in the neighborhood increases a year later after home improvements are made in the area. All of the surveys are expected to be complete this fall.

“It’s so rewarding to know that you have the potential to change someone’s quality of life,” Smoak said. “We’re doing this because we purely want to serve people to give them a better life. This is not something that can be done in a year. It’s a huge undertaking and it will take devoted people.”

For more information about the local Habitat, or to volunteer, call Thirumal at 478-453-9617.

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