May 20, 2004 11:00 pm

Habitat for Humanity is one of the most respected charities in the country. And yet, at the core of its charter, Habitat isn't truly a charity. Charities give to the needy and the dispossessed. To benefit from Habitat for Humanity, applicants have to meet a series of criteria, and they have to be willing to do their own work.

To cop an old phrase, Habitat for Humanity doesn't offer a hand-out, it offers a helping hand.

Unfortunately, Habitat for Humanity does have to fight some stereotypes. Here are the facts: Habitat helps low-income families build their own homes. These aren't people on public assistance. These are working families simply in need of affordable and decent housing. Habitat offers an opportunity for affordable housing by providing no-interest loans. In the case of one

La Grande family of seven, Habitat for Humanity helped them out of a two-bedroom apartment into their own home.

People have to be willing to help build the house, and they have to show the financial ability to pay back the loan.

Being able to build your own house and being able to pay off the loan also builds pride and self-esteem. While programs providing food for the week or clothes for the winter are admirable and needed, Habitat offers long-term solutions to housing needs and builds long-term ties between families and communities. It's not building houses, it's building a community.

Habitat for Humanity is looking to expand into Elgin, with a new program to renovate an existing house, rather than helping a family build a house from scratch.

The local Habitat chapter is doing good things, but it could use more help — a lot more. More volunteers to help with building are needed, as are donations of money and materials.

Anyone interested in helping Habitat can either call the organization at 663-9515 or write at P.O. Box 111, La Grande 97850.