Habitat for Humanity Canada: After fleeing Colombia, family digs in to build their dream home


RBC Wealth Management has engaged in 50 Habitat Build Days over the past five years, involving approximately 750 employees across the country.

habitat build day

When Carlos and Claudia moved to Canada from Colombia more than a decade ago, they had a big dream to someday buy their own home.

The dream came true this past August for the couple, their 23-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son with the help of Habitat for Humanity Canada. But the journey to home ownership was not an easy one.

The family escaped Colombia in 2007 when their relatives were being threatened by people targeting Claudia's brother, an engineer in the telecommunications field.

“They wanted to use him for whatever they needed him to do. He was a really smart guy and they knew about him, so they were trying to kidnap him. There was a lot of stuff that went on. It wasn't nice," Carlos says.

When they arrived in Canada, they were granted protected status, a designation given by the government to those who have reason to fear returning to their country of origin.

They began their new life, finding jobs, renting apartments. But rent was raised, and there was hydro and water bills to pay. They both had jobs, but even with their combined income, “sometimes it wasn't enough," and they would pick up side jobs to make ends meet.

“The beginning wasn't easy, but we survived, and we made it through," says Carlos. “But we just got to a point where we said, we have to do something about this."

Through the hardship, their dream of owning their own home never waned.

habitat for humanity canada family

Carlos and Claudia are pictured with their family outside of their new home.

“My goal … was to get a home. Ever since I got here. It was very difficult because it's not easy to go through the process of making a down payment. And it's not that easy because you've got to start from the bottom," he says. “I not only think about myself, but I think about my son and my daughter, because I want to be able to leave them something for their future and their future kids."

Destined for Habitat

Habitat for Humanity began more than four decades ago in Americus, Ga., the outcome of an idea to build affordable homes at no profit. Today, it's a global non-profit operating in more than 70 countries.

A national, charitable organization, Habitat for Humanity Canada has been operating since 1985 to build and rehabilitate affordable single-family and multi-unit homes, with the aid of sponsors, volunteers and Habitat Canada homeowners.

RBC Wealth Management has engaged in 50 Habitat Build Days over the past five years, involving approximately 750 employees across the country. RBC Wealth Management has partnered with Habitat for Humanity Canada to help 1,236 families build strength, stability and independence through affordable homeownership since 2013.

habitat employee build day

Volunteers from RBC Wealth Management team up with Habitat for Humanity Canada.

Successful home ownership applicants have the opportunity to volunteer “sweat equity" hours with Habitat to help build their own home. The applicants require a steady income that allows them to make interest-free, monthly mortgage payments set at 30 percent of the homeowner's gross income.

To qualify, potential homeowners must be permanent residents of Canada, who have been here for at least three years. Habitat Canada also looks at the need for better housing, willingness to partner with Habitat and ability to make affordable mortgage payments to determine eligibility.

Carlos and Claudia learned about Habitat through his work at WINMAR, a property restoration company that regularly donates furniture and other items to Habitat Canada. The couple were partnered with Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario, which is one of 54 local Habitats across the country that work to bring affordable homeownership opportunities to more people in need of housing.

“I heard about how they build houses for low-income families, and I said to myself, well, why don't we try?"

Despite what seemed like, “A lot of paperwork, a lot of information, a lot of everything," the family was undeterred. One day, on what seemed like yet another request for information, the entire family was asked to go to the local Habitat office for just a little more paperwork.

But everything felt weird once they arrived, he remembered. They were kept waiting for what seemed like hours. Finally, they were brought into a room packed with people, balloons, a large cake,and a big “Congratulations!" sign.

“That was just — oh, my God, what's going on?! That's something we won't forget. It was just a thrill," says Carlos. “My wife cried. My son had watery eyes ... knowing that you're going to own your own home, you know what I mean? That it belongs to you. You're not paying somebody else's mortgage."

The groundbreaking ceremony happened last November, and the couple says the best part of the process was having a hand in turning their dream home — a single story house, just as Claudia wanted — into a reality. They put in some 500 volunteer hours for their home, as well as that of their new neighbours, whom they first met at the ceremony.

“Every nail that's nailed to the wall, to a stud, it's for you," says Carlos. "Just the fact that you know you're building something for your kids, for your future, for their future. It's just a wonderful feeling. It's just amazing."

Giving back and giving thanks

As Carlos shares his family's journey from Colombia to Canada, he is effusive in his gratitude and praise for the program, the sponsors and the volunteers.

“(The volunteers) were just wonderful people. They were hard-working people who were retired, or people with a lot of money. To work 14 hours here with no regrets, happy and smiling — that's something that says, 'Wow, there's still good people out there,'" he says.

Carlos adds without sponsors supporting Habitat, it would not be possible for families like his to own a home. “From the bottom of our hearts, thank you so much."

Families who buy a Habitat home reported being happier and healthier, according to a survey by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, while a study by the Boston Consulting Group looking at the social return on investment (SROI) of the organization's home ownership model reported each Habitat home generated CAD$175,000 worth of benefits to society.

“I believe that if you're doing the right stuff, everything's going to come to you," Carlos says. “I'm not done here. This is never going to stop because I'm going to keep helping them. I believe in what they do and it's just a wonderful, wonderful cause."

Carlos and Claudia's dream of giving their family a better, safer life in Canada is being fulfilled. Claudia continues to work, but has made up her mind to also go back to school to give herself better career opportunities.

"It's been a long journey," says Carlos. "We are really grateful because this is a wonderful country for everything it's done for us. The opportunities that it gives you to start a life is amazing. And we won't take a minute of that for granted."