Matt Fifolt, Ph.D., and Sandhya Kumar are a generation apart. Fifolt is the director of assessment and planning in Student Affairs. Kumar is a junior in the Honors Psychology and pre-Med programs.

(From left to right) Amanda Minnix, Sybil Sexton, Jackie Stafford and Jessica Williams race to finish their gingerbread house at the “From Gingerbread House to Habitat Home” competition Nov. 12 in the Spencer Honors House.
But the two have a shared interest in service to others, Kumar as the president of the UAB student chapter of Habitat for Humanity and Fifolt as its advisor.

Kumar, along with vice president Jennifer Ghandhi, organized the Nov. 12 competition “From Gingerbread House to Habitat Home” at the Spencer Honors House to raise money for Habitat for Humanity International (HHI). HHI is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian, housing ministry that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat has built nearly 300,000 houses around the world, providing more than 1.5 million people in more than 3,000 communities with safe, decent, affordable shelter.

“One of the goals as a campus chapter, along with supplying a steady flow of volunteers to the Greater Birmingham Habitat affiliate, is to have fundraisers for Habitat for Humanity International,” Kumar says. “In the past the organization has held bake sales. We wanted to do something different and fun and perhaps pull from a wider range of people to participate.”

Service to others
Twenty student, faculty and staff teams paid $20 each to participate in the event that raised more than $450 and promoted efforts to eliminate substandard housing and homelessness. Teams had a maximum of five members and had 30 minutes to complete their gingerbread houses. All participants in the top three teams received a prize mug with candy and a value package pass for Riverview Brunswick Lanes. The top team also received movie tickets. Raffle prizes, which included gingerbread house kits, passes to Vestavia Bowl and tickets to Village Tavern for free appetizers and desserts, also were awarded.

Individuals from the community donated money to cover the cost of the basic materials for the competition, and each team was allowed to bring in any alternative supplies they might have wanted to use. Children of Habitat homeowners were the judges.

“The gingerbread house fundraiser involved people in a way that doesn’t require them to make a large commitment of time,” Fifolt says. “It promoted awareness for our organization and the community outreach it undertakes and hopefully inspired others to service.”

Fifolt and Kumar say they developed an interest in this particular kind of service in college.

Fifolt began his work with Habitat for Humanity as a graduate student at South Carolina after participating in its Alternative Spring Break, a program he later advised at UAB in 1995. Alternative Spring Break provides students an opportunity to spend their traditional spring break time rehabilitating and building houses. UAB has partnered with Habitat for Humanity for years, and students have traveled to South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida and Oklahoma to spend their week building homes.

“I think the neat thing is to see students come back energized and transformed,” Fifolt says. “That’s helped our chapter significantly.”

UAB’s chapter was founded several years ago after an Alternative Spring Break trip. Kumar participated in Alternative Spring Break as a freshman, traveling to Rocky Mountain, N.C., for five days of work.

“I had always wanted to participate in Habitat but couldn’t until I turned 18; that’s part of their rules,” Kumar says. “Once I came to UAB, it was amazing to see so many students interested in volunteering. It was easy to join and participate.”

Empowering volunteers
UAB’s chapter committed to five workdays locally this fall and consistently had at least 20 volunteers work every other Saturday. Almost 30 volunteers participated in the final weekend of work in an Ensley neighborhood that is made up almost exclusively of Habitat homes.

“There is one house completed, and three or four more are under construction,” Kumar says. “It’s been great to go work and just see the progression. We had such a great response from our chapter this fall that we’ve scheduled six workdays for the spring.”
Fifolt says the reason the Greater Birmingham chapter is successful is because the program empowers those who volunteer.

“They aren’t interested in bringing people on just to be gophers or do menial tasks,” Fifolt says. “They’re interested in people learning how to put a roof on or build a wall. I think they know the time they spend investing in the people coming out to those workdays is time well spent. I think it’s empowering to students.

“I know it has been empowering to me when I’ve been on those sites,” he adds. “You don’t have to come in with all the skills or knowledge. There are people there who are willing and more than eager to teach.”

The Birmingham chapter is ranked in the Top 10 of more than 1,500 Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the United States; 40 new houses have been completed in 2008, an increase of 12.5 percent. “To be ranked at such a high level is a wonderful thing for the city and a nice thing to be a part of as an affiliate,” Fifolt says.

“Students like Sandhya and Jennifer are great representatives for the organization because they have that passion for service to the others, which is something I think we’re seeing more from students coming to UAB,” he notes. “The more UAB can do to provide opportunities and support for Habitat and other types of service organizations, the better our university will be. We certainly will be able to attract high-quality students and people.”

Contact Kumar at to learn more about the UAB Chapter of Habitat for Humanity.