Greek House

Northwestern's fraternities and sororities are partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Chicago's suburbs.

by Elizabeth Weingarten

Video: Greek House — GreekBuild brings members of Northwestern's fraternities and sororities together to build Habitat for Humanity homes in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan. See more videos from Northwestern magazine.

Jessica Beltran did not want to get out of bed. It was 6 a.m. on a frigid February Saturday. The senior from Downers Grove, Ill., was exhausted from a long week of projects, tests and quizzes. But she had to get up — she had a house to build.

Resisting the temptation to sleep in, Beltran, along with 12 other members of the GreekBuild executive board, left a silently slumbering campus to travel to a Habitat for Humanity building site on the south side of Waukegan, Ill., 25 miles north of campus.

At first, Beltran says, the mood was subdued. The team of Northwestern students had no idea how they would actually build a house. "But as soon as we saw the enthusiasm of the volunteers who were there building every week, we got this builders' high," says Beltran, a member of Alpha Phi. "Forty-five minutes into building, everyone got this sudden rush when we realized, 'We're going to build a house! This is going to be awesome.' "

GreekBuild is a new program, founded by current seniors Tod Reynolds, Aaron Jacobowitz, Julie Karaba and Ben Mattson in spring 2008. It brings together the entire Greek community to build a Habitat for Humanity house.

"We were talking about what Northwestern was missing in the Greek scene," says Reynolds, a senior in Sigma Chi from Summit, N.J. "The intention was really to do a hands-on philanthropy or service project that involved more than one fraternity or sorority."

GreekBuild is the first service project at Northwestern to include all of the Greek organizations on campus. "There's a siloing effect when you get into a Greek house here," explains Matt Spector, a senior in Zeta Beta Tau from Livingston, N.J., and last year's GreekBuild public relations chair. "This has been such an incredible opportunity to meet people from different Greek houses with different backgrounds and interests."

The project founders knew the 2,700 Greek students on campus had the potential for huge philanthropic power. And although each Greek house participates in philanthropy events on campus, GreekBuild offers the rare chance to do direct service.

"So often at Northwestern we throw money at causes and don't really see the tangible results," Spector explains. "In this situation, there's something real that we're doing, something physical."

In addition to sawing through Saturdays, GreekBuild students also faced the daunting task of raising $100,000 to pay for building materials, the plot of land and the on-site construction supervisor's salary. The group received a corporate co-sponsorship of $50,000 from Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting and outsourcing company in Lincolnshire, Ill., that has sponsored other Habitat for Humanity homes. GreekBuild relied on traditional fundraising to collect the rest of the funds; various chapters sponsored on-campus philanthropies, and members solicited family, friends, alumni and local churches for support. They also wrote grant proposals, held a fundraiser in one executive board member's hometown and canned on street corners. (Including the Hewitt sponsorship, GreekBuild raised a total of $94,000.)

"The challenge of GreekBuild is selling people on the fact that a project such as this can actually be accomplished," says Spector. "Some people think that Greek houses are just big social clubs. But Greek life is a lot more. It's a lot of doing good and putting your numbers, desire, interests and passion to good use."

Including volunteers from the Kellogg School of Management, 289 GreekBuild volunteers worked on-site from February through June, an average of about 15 workers each Saturday.

The Northwestern house is part of the Carter Crossing development in Waukegan and one of more than 30 houses that will be constructed in the Habitat for Humanity subdivision over three years. Randy Moore, the head supervisor on the site, expects to have the entire project completed by summer 2010.

Moore says Habitat for Humanity is a "hand-up, not a hand-out." The houses built are not free, but they are affordable — each house is sold to the owner for the price of construction.

Last year Gamma Phi Beta junior Ali Dvorak, a 2009–10 GreekBuild co-director, maintained the central relationship with the owner of the home, Karla Campos, and her 8-year-old daughter, Briana. As the family relations co-chair, she updated the family on the progress of their home, took them to dinner and babysat Briana. Her main job was to travel to Waukegan every week "so Karla had a face she recognized at the build site."

Campos says she feels proud to have GreekBuild as her home sponsor.

"Those days [building] in the snow, those days in the cold winter, I didn't hear any of them complain," says Campos, of Waukegan, Ill. "They were there. They were putting their heart and soul into it. I'm just so happy and grateful that they're on my side. "

The family did its share, too. Karla and Briana came to campus fundraising events to show their support and worked at the job site to put in 500 hours of "sweat equity," to meet the Habitat for Humanity requirement that the family volunteer on one of the organization's projects.

"[The building is] a lot of hard work, but I just think about the reward at the end," Campos says.

The construction of the house was to be completed by August, and the dedication will take place Oct. 3.

Beginning this fall GreekBuild will partner in building and fundraising for another house in Carter Crossing, this time with local students in Habitat for Humanity's Youth United program, which mobilizes young people to fund and build a house with their local Habitat affiliate. The Youth United group will include students from local high schools, including Evanston Township High School. GreekBuild organizers hope to share the $120,000 cost of building the house with Youth United and corporate sponsors.

Senior Elizabeth Weingarten is studying magazine journalism at the Medill School of Journalism.

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at