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Habitat Tries to Shake Perceptions

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Of the 150 houses constructed in the organization's 16 years in Richmond, all went to African-American families except for eight: four to white families, two to Haitians, one to a Hispanic family and one to an American-Indian family. "As you can see, we have a long way to go," Bezdan says.

Now Habitat is trying to involve the local Hispanic community, as well as Muslim and Jewish communities, by inviting them to help build houses and to help the group find families who need homes.

First on the to-do list is targeting Richmond's flourishing Hispanic population. That will take work, says Jose Rosado, who has been working on the diversity campaign with Bezdan. "Habitat has run into some barriers," says Rosado, a leader in the Hispanic Support Organization at Verizon, which has donated money to Habitat.

None of the nonprofit's staff is fluent in Spanish, he says, and until recently Habitat didn't know where to go to inform Hispanic communities. Now the organization is trying to find money to print and distribute its brochures in Spanish. Beginning in October, Habitat will also place signs inside buses, in English and Spanish, saying, "Want to become a homeowner? We can help."

"By our next homeowner application orientation [in the spring]," Bezdan says, "we should have a big representation … from the Hispanic population, culminating in a home built by the Hispanic community for a Hispanic family."

Habitat wants to involve other religious groups in its efforts. It can be tough, Bezdan says, to coordinate everything — ensuring that people don't work on their Sabbath, for example, and welcoming all faiths while making sure people know Habitat is "unabashedly Christian."

A house dedicated Aug. 11 in the Merriewood neighborhood in Chesterfield County is evidence of the organization's new focus, Bezdan says. It was the product of labor by 13 churches, one mosque and one synagogue, and was built for a Haitian family. Bezdan calls it a "total world house." —

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