Sum of its parts

Small projects lead to big results in Habitat’s Rock the Block program

Posted on May 30, 2019 :: For the love
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

A new roof, updated siding, a fresh coat of paint. Individually, these may not sound like large-scale projects, but taken together and applied to an entire neighborhood, they can prove transformative.

Habitat for Humanity’s Rock the Block is all about delivering these small projects that create a big impact. A program of the Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity since 2015, Executive Director John Weyenberg says Rock the Block helps residents of targeted neighborhoods as well as the greater community.

“The community as a whole wins because we improve living conditions for our friends and neighbors and colleagues,” he says. “Families they’re directly serving win because they’ll be living in a better place.”

Habitat for Humanity is best known for providing simple, decent and affordable housing to families. Rock the Block complements this mission, revitalizing neighborhoods to bring fresh, new hope to communities, Weyenberg says.

The program focuses on exterior work such as window installations, siding work, roof replacements, painting projects and landscaping. Ryan Roth, director of community development for Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat, says exterior work is meaningful and provides significant value to homeowners.

As is the case with all Habitat projects, the organization doesn’t do projects for free. Rather, they’re offered at a minimal cost — primarily the cost of materials, Roth says. Recipients of the work help with the projects to the extent they can. For example, a 94-year-old World War II veteran handed out water bottles at one project site.

“We don’t work for people; we work with people,” Roth says.

Four years ago, the Rock the Block program started small, with the nonprofit selecting one neighborhood. Weyenberg says lot of information and data gathering went into choosing the Nienhaus Square/Pierce Park area in Appleton for its first project. That diligence paid off, as the organization embarked on a three-year effort of renovating 10 neighborhoods. That ended last fall, and now it’s picking 10 new areas.

Since 2015, the program has only grown. It used to focus only on the immediate Fox Cities, but now it’s branching out. In May, Brillion completed its first two-day Rock the Block event, and a Waupaca project is slated for 2020.

Sara Pielhop, a funeral director at Brillion’s Wieting Funeral Home, helped lead the charge to bring the program to her city. Soon, community leaders such as Dan and Mimi Ariens and prominent businesses such as Ariens Co., Endries International and Professional Plating got involved and offered financial support.

The Brillion project, which encompassed the city’s Main Street, included 21 residential and 15 community projects. Pielhop says it was heartening to revitalize the neighborhood and provide help to those in need.

“Volunteering is good for the soul; it’s good for the body; it’s good for the community,” Pielhop says.

Roth agrees. He says these projects lead to relationship building — among both volunteers and neighbors — and create a pride of ownership and a feeling of being part of the solution.

Benefits don’t stop there, Weyenberg says. Habitat works with police departments to gather statistics, and these neighborhoods tend to see positive trends after completing a Rock the Block project.

This fall, the Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity will embark on its largest, most ambitious undertaking yet. The Menasha project, which will run from September through November, encompasses an area three times the size of a typical project.

Weyenberg says Menasha has much to offer, but its housing stock is aging. This project, which runs from Ninth Street to Racine Street, aims to provide the area needed revitalization. Business leaders, including John Bergstrom and Kathi Seifert, have championed the project and have helped raise a significant amount of money, with a goal of netting $1.2 million.

Oshkosh gets in on the act

This spring, Habitat for Humanity of Oshkosh kicked off its first-ever Rock the Block event. Held in late April, the project focused on the Sacred Heart neighborhood between Knapp and Dakota streets and Fourth and Ninth avenues.

Elizabeth Last, program manager for Habitat for Humanity of Oshkosh, says the organization works in collaboration with Greater Oshkosh Healthy Neighborhoods and the City of Oshkosh. The Oshkosh program works a little differently than in the Fox Cities, in that it provides the work at no cost through grant funding. Like the Fox Cities, though, homeowners contribute time and effort to the projects.

The work ranges from simple to complex. It could include power washing, lawn edging, preparation work for painting, and porch and window repairs. More involved projects included removing an unneeded wheelchair ramp and taking down awnings that were blocking the natural light in a home.

About 120 volunteers pitched in. Corporations, including Oshkosh Corp., U.S. Venture and Bemis, supported the project and plan to continue to do so in the future.

Last says the program helps build community and brings neighbors together. “That social connectedness is a really key part of this,” she says.