In these unseasonably cold weeks of fall, Milwaukee families who are warm and snug in their homes likely are grateful for their good fortune. The more than 400 families in Habitat For Humanity homes here also have Jim Lambe to thank for his help in building their secure, energy-efficient residences.
Lambe came to Milwaukee in 2008 after retiring from his job in international sales for a chemical company near Cleveland. He had been a Habitat volunteer for several years, including one trip to Thibodaux, La. to help with post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding. While in Louisiana, he worked with AmeriCorps volunteers and learned of a job opening with the Milwaukee chapter of Habitat For Humanity through AmeriCorps, sort of the domestic version of the Peace Corps.
Lambe started his first 11-month commitment with AmeriCorps in fall 2008 and is working on one of the Habitat homes sponsored by his own Milwaukee parish, Old St. Mary, and Three Holy Women Parish. For his work – he recently began a second stint – Lambe receives a stipend of $11,700, plus housing.
What caused Lambe to uproot himself and to take on a job paying near minimum wage?
He replied, “I like to pound nails.”
The more in-depth answer takes Lambe back to his childhood and his Catholic roots. His family attended church regularly, where they were frequently admonished to give of their time, talent and treasure to help others.
“The congregation in my hometown was very active in outreach,” Lambe added.
“When I was working, my career had me traveling a lot,” Lambe said. “There was no time for volunteering. Weekends were just for family.”
Once he retired, that call to service beckoned him.
“What I like about it is the moral guidance. The church doesn’t change very quickly,” Lambe said. “Right and wrong doesn’t change. I like the consistency, the basic tenets that people have believed for centuries.”
Unfortunately, Lambe noted, the need for safe, affordable housing also never goes away.
The positive effects of Habitat also are felt beyond the nation’s borders, he said, explaining that Habitat tithes 10 percent of the donations it receives to programs in other countries.
“This year, two groups worked on homes in El Salvador,” Lambe says, “and donations were sent to Guatemala, too.”
Lambe was born and raised in West Chicago, Ill., so coming back to the Upper Midwest was not a jarring change for him.
Being in Milwaukee helps Lambe stay close to his two daughters, one of whom attends Northwestern University.
As construction crew leader, he often gets to know the families who will occupy the homes he’s building. He explained that often for them, buying a Habitat home ensures that they will stay together as a family.
“We talked about it when I volunteered in Louisiana,” Lambe said. “A Habitat home is a hand up, not a hand-out. We’re not just giving the family something, but also giving them an opportunity to help build it themselves.”
Each family who applies for a Habitat home must complete an application, he said, and they are asked why they’re interested in getting such a home.
“Mostly, they say it’s to raise their kids safely, in a better neighborhood,” Lambe said. “They like the idea of their kids having their own bedroom.”
Each family must contribute 500 hours of “sweat equity” in building their home, in addition to the mortgage. Mortgage payments average about $500 per month, over 20 years, and include real estate taxes. Habitat For Humanity itself is the mortgage holder.
Mike Moran, of Three Holy Women Parish, has volunteered with Habitat For Humanity for 17 years. He is the volunteer team leader on the house the parish is sponsoring this year, the 407th home built by Habitat in Milwaukee in 25 years.
Describing Lambe as an asset to the project, Moran said: “He’s doing this at considerable financial expense to himself. We’re lucky to have him. He’s a great guy to work with.”
It’s not easy to get Lambe to admit that what he’s doing is unusual.
“I’ve been blessed enough that I can afford to do it and my health has been good enough to allow me to do it,” he said.