Habitat for Humanity is not a handout. It never has been.

That's the message from Beverly Miller, board president of the local chapter of the home and hope building agency that just completed its sixth house construction project in Garden City.

Miller said there is always a public perception that Habitat families are getting a freebie by getting a new home, but she said that is not the case.

Instead, families must meet strict national guidelines to qualify for the program based on their income; be living in substandard housing that is unsafe or overcrowded; pay down a 30-year mortgage on their new home to Habitat for Humanity, which owns the home when it is completed; and also put in their own "sweat equity," not only on their own home but on a previous home, about 500 hours of labor all together, according to Miller.

"Once we take them out of their substandard living and put them in a house, in a neighborhood, it really does change their lifestyle. It changes their whole family," Miller said. "The kids grow up in a home where parents are spending money to (own) a house, they have a yard, and it truly changes their lives. ... We have homeowners where all of their children have gone to college, in a situation where that probably wouldn't have happened before."

The local Habitat chapter, which has been in existence in Garden City since the 1990s, is new to the chosen list of partner agencies set to receive funds from this year's Finney County United Way's annual fundraising campaign.

The United Way is in the midst of its 2012 campaign and has a goal of raising $550,000 to be distributed to 21 partner agencies.

If the United Way reaches its goal, the local Habitat chapter is set to receive $10,000 that will benefit the agency's toolbox, Miller said.

After all, the board president said, it takes a lot of tools to build a house.

"When we first started, we just used our own tools. And we still do with saws," she said, adding that volunteers typically have kept their own tools in their car trunks before the agency recently purchased a locked trailer for tool storage. "We have some awesome people. This has been their passion through the years."

The agency already has completed six homes since their inception in the 1990s, and the past few homes that have been built typically have taken just more than a year. Miller said she and other volunteers would like to build them faster between eight and nine months, if possible as some families have had to wait a couple of years before their home has been completed.

Almost everything that goes into a Habitat home from plumbing to electrical work to framing to planting grass to painting is donated. The average home, depending on family size, is about 1,000 square feet in space.

Even though the homes are small and built through donations, that doesn't mean volunteers don't build a "quality home," Miller said. Resale value, energy efficiency and good design are all part of any new Habitat house, she said.

"That's why we have to use every square foot wisely," Miller said.

For a family, paying a 30-year mortgage at the cost of the house the cost of the materials runs $50,000 to $60,000 on a small, two-bedroom home. Insurance and taxes are escrowed into the monthly payments.

In addition, no interest is charged on the loan. And to this day, Habitat has never had to foreclose on a family in the area, Miller said.

"(The process) makes it very doable for families to have a Habitat house. They probably would not have been able to get a traditional home mortgage otherwise," Miller said, adding that after homeowners move in, a family nurturing committee works with families on budgeting and home care issues. "We work hand in hand with them. ... It's about stopping that poverty cycle."

There are many families likely in need of better housing in Garden City. However, they must meet strict qualification guidelines before building can begin.

Sister Roserita Weber, from the Dominican Sisters Ministry of Presence and head of the local Habitat chapter's family selection committee, said the three most basic eligibility requirements include income level; the family must be living in substandard housing typically an overcrowding situation; and the aforementioned "sweat equity," a requirement to put in 100 hours on a Habitat home before volunteers will begin their work.

The family selection committee also considers credit history, such as outstanding debt, before choosing a family and also can build only for residents who are legally present in the United States, Weber said.

As far as income guidelines, Weber said individuals or families must fall within poverty income guidelines that put them between 25 to 50 percent of the average median income in Finney County for their household size. Those below 25 percent do not qualify, she said.

"That's simply because when the house is completed, you have a no-interest loan you must pay back on the cost of the materials for the home," she said. "If you're below 25 percent, you probably do not have the resources to pay. You're likely using all of your money up on the basic expenses, such as food, clothing and utilities."

But for those families that do qualify, they put their work in enthusiastically, Miller said, both before and after Habitat enters their lives.

"Let me tell you, most of our families work more," the board president said. "We even have other Habitat families that come and work on these houses, as volunteers."

Other groups that will receive United Way funds in 2012 include: Finney County RSVP; Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties; Santa Fe Trail Council Boy Scouts; Smart Start; Playground Program; Kansas Children's Service League; The Salvation Army; Catholic Social Service; Meals on Wheels; Family Crisis Services; Garden City Family YMCA; Garden City Chapter of the Red Cross; Miles of Smiles; Russell Child Development Center; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association; United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Spirit of the Plains, CASA; Community Day Care; and Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland.

Habitat for Humanity of Garden City

Mission: To help partner families realize their dream of owning an affordable, decent home that meets their needs.

Board of directors president: Beverly Miller

For those interested in volunteering, donating, applying for a home or attending a board meeting, contact Miller at 275-1187.