The worst things in life often bring out the best in people.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, just weeks after Bonnie Ebbesen retired, she looked for ways to help.
“But doors kept getting closed,” she said. “They would say, ‘Just send money, we don’t have any place for you.’”
She eventually found a Habitat build in the area. She and her husband, Fred, traveled to a suburb of New Orleans in the aftermath of one of the most deadly storms in the United States. The Neenah couple helped in the rebuilding efforts for a week. They became team leaders and brought teams down to help several more times.
“We had a great experience with Habitat,” Bonnie said. “So we decided that in our retirement, we could do something locally.”
They connected to the Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity and “the rest is history,” according to Fred.
The couple is among 34 members of the Retired & Senior Volunteer 55+ Program who volunteer in construction at Habitat. RSVP, which has been a long-time supporter of Habitat for Humanity, is sponsored by Volunteer Fox Cities.
Jodi Isom, volunteer services director at Habitat, said Fred and Bonnie are amazing volunteers.
“They’re one of those fabulous couples who always have a smile, always are welcoming and helpful and serve others just because they can and it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “They never hesitate to volunteer and they seem to have boundless energy! They are a huge asset to our community and especially to the Habitat team.”
The Ebbesens love to travel. Volunteering with Habitat has allowed them to see the world, including Brazil, Nepal, Northern Ireland and Costa Rica.
We feel this is a good way to really learn the culture and really see the country, so we go as a traveler, not a tourist,” Bonnie said. “We are embedded into a community – a community that most tourists wouldn’t see.”
In addition to Habitat, they have been involved in Solomon’s Porch, a humanitarian effort in Guatemala, for 14 years. For the last six years, they have led Habitat teams in that country in conjunction with Habitat Global Village. Typically, the first week they participate in a Habitat build for Habitat International and the remaining three weeks they work with Solomon’s Porch.
“We fell in love with the place and the people,” Fred said, “and we just keep going back.”
The couple has very good friends there, including a mother and her four adult children and 10 grandchildren.
“When we are there for four weeks or so, we become literally part of their family,” Fred said.
The Ebbesens work side by side with the people they are helping.
“I always tell people I do this for totally selfish reasons because I get more out of this than I give to it,” Fred said. “To work next to people and help them build a house that they are going to live in, it’s hard to explain. It’s humbling. Even though we are just a small part of helping them reach that dream, we are still part of that. It’s pretty cool!”
“And they allow us into their life,” Bonnie added.
Fred said the Fox Cities is a unique location because of the number of people willing to volunteer and the many businesses that support local causes.
The Ebbesens are part of the Habitat Senior Crew, a group of highly dedicated volunteers who commit to volunteering regularly with Habitat. They serve as the leadership volunteers at worksites. Fred likes the way members of the Senior Crew interact with each other.
“It’s a fun environment, knowing that when you get there, you are going to be working with a bunch of people who want to be there,” he said. “Everyone at the work site is there for one reason: to help someone get a house. These families just blossom.”
The families they work with on Habitat homes have impressed upon them the importance of home ownership.
Fred points out that most families who purchase a Habitat house have been renters.
“To be able to bring their children up in a house that has a yard where they can play, opposed to a paved parking lot behind an apartment …”
Bonnie met the owner of a Habitat home a few months after his family moved in:
“He said, ‘I just feel so good not having to tell my kids to be quiet.’”