Foon Rhee

An idea to build unity starts in Sacramento and spreads across America

Volunteers raise the wall on a unity house in North Sacramento.
Volunteers raise the wall on a unity house in North Sacramento. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento was scrounging for cash, Donald Trump was ranting against Muslims and Jeff vonKaenel had an idea:

What if local Muslims worked with the faithful at churches and synagogues to build a Habitat house – to help raise money and to prove that religion doesn’t divide us?

That was December 2015. Since, vonKaenel has helped spread the Build for Unity message, talking to Habitat and Muslim groups across America. Projects are now in a dozen cities and counting – as big as New York and as small as Truckee Meadows, Nev.

On Thursday night, it all comes back to Sacramento with the dedication of the first two unity houses, side by side in North Sacramento. It took 180 congregations 10 months to raise $176,000 and eight months to build with more than 1,000 volunteers. The Maksymchuk and Vozuiuk families will get the keys. There will be Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Lutheran prayers, a Ramadan dinner and a tour of the homes.

It took 180 congregations 10 months to raise $176,000 and eight months to build with more than 1,000 volunteers. There will be Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Lutheran prayers, a Ramadan dinner and a tour of the homes.

“It reflects the values of Sacramento,” says vonKaenel, whose day job is president and CEO of the Sacramento News & Review. “I’m really proud we get to be a unity symbol in these times when we really need it.”

When I learned of the dedication, it brought back some fond memories of my stints as a Habitat volunteer. When I saw the snapshots of “Home Sweet Home” and other hopeful messages scrawled on drywall, it reminded me of the year I spent as Habitat house leader. Our dedication was during Thanksgiving week of 1999, and I was grateful to have done something concrete to change a family’s life for the better.

The great thing about volunteering is that it can reveal strengths you didn’t know you had; for me it was leadership. You can always find a way to be useful. Like me, vonKaenel isn’t all that handy in the actual construction department. We’ve both been relegated to painting closets, where mistakes are more easily hidden.

“I’m not much of a hammer guy,” he says. “But a lot of people want to hammer. Not very many want to talk to politicians.”

With his skill set, he found a way to not only put a roof over the heads of two deserving families – and a small dent in California’s affordable housing crisis – but also to bring people together in our very divided nation.

Not bad at all for one small idea.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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