BY ASHLEY SZATALA
Tom Geary, EMORY 1970, regularly volunteers with Habitat for Humanity Romania after witnessing the country’s poor housing stock while stationed in Bucharest in the late 1990s
Tom Geary, EMORY 1970, lived in Romania from 1997 to 1999 while posted to the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest as a U.S. Air Force colonel. During that time, he learned the Romanian language and witnessed firsthand how communist-era housing was poorly constructed and how the newly democratic country lacked the resources to repair the dilapidated structures.
A year after Geary retired from the military in 2000, the Washington state resident began volunteering with the Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity, an organization for which Geary’s church raises money and its members volunteer. It wasn’t until a few years later that he learned of Habitat for Humanity’s involvement around the world, including Romania. Geary signed up with the organization’s Global Village short-term service trip to Romania and spent about a week volunteering in 2005.
“I thought it was a no-brainer since I could speak the language, and it’s an opportunity for me to do something to help” Geary says.
He’s since traveled to Romania 10 more times, often paying out-of-pocket to volunteer, and has stayed in the country for as long as three months. For his work with Habitat for Humanity, Geary has been named the spring quarter Mark V. Anderson Character-in-ActionTM Leadership Award recipient.
ALLEVIATING ROMANIA’S HOUSING CRISIS
Romania’s housing crisis developed from the urbanization and modernization process that took place during communist rule and the subsequent privatization of housing once the country switched to a market economy in December 1989.
Habitat for Humanity Romania says online that more than 10,000 blocks of government-owned flats were constructed 50 years ago, and many were built with prefabricated, low-quality materials. Mass privatization of homes occurred in the early 1990s, and new homeowners did not have the financial means to take care of their decaying properties. National statistics estimate that 35 percent of Romania’s housing stock is in a state of complete neglect, and 52 percent of the population lives in overcrowded conditions. In addition, a significant portion of housing units don’t have bathrooms or basic utilities.
“I have seen a 200-square-foot apartment that didn’t have a bathroom for the family, some don’t have indoor plumbing, some have dirt floors, and some have holes in the roof,” Geary says. “The government doesn’t have the resources to help, so it’s up to NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to do so.”
A “blitz build,” as Habitat for Humanity calls it, is where volunteers build several houses in about a week, and Geary has participated in those since 2007. However, he specifically helps get houses ready for the blitz build and usually spends two to three months in Romania doing so. Geary works alongside the families who will become the homeowners and about six full-time construction workers employed by Habitat for Humanity Romania.
“We prepare the foundations, usually by hand without using heavy equipment, and construct roof trusses and wall panels. We divide the wall up into smaller panels that are connected together to make longer walls,” he explains. “This work is a really big task. But, all of it must be completed prior to the blitz-build event.”
Geary adds that he also helps coordinate the participation of the future homeowners and plans for logistical support, such as construction materials, lodging and meals for volunteers. The largest blitz build he’s been part of had 700 volunteers working on as many as 36 houses, and the blitz build in 2019 had 300 volunteers working on 10 houses.
“You get hooked on the excitement with those,” he says. “You have hundreds of volunteers building houses. It’s a wonderful kind of chaos.”
At the end of the building projects, Geary says there often are tears of joy shed by the families moving into the houses.
“Over the years I’ve had the benefit of seeing those families blossom from having the benefit of a house,” he adds.
However, leaving Romania after a blitz build is always bittersweet for Geary.
“The need [for quality housing] is too great. The projects we do barely make a dent in the need, but at least we’re doing something. I see progress whenever I go back, but the progress is uneven [throughout the country],” Geary says. “I always say it is by accident I was born into an affluent country. When I leave [Romania] to go home, I feel guilty because of how many [people] still live in dreadful conditions, and here I am going back to my own comfortable lifestyle.”
HELPING THE COMMUNITY
Back in Washington, Geary often helps his own local Habitat for Humanity organization. Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity Community Engagement Manager Tracey Sorenson says Geary is one of the nonprofit’s most engaged volunteers.
“He is a constant champion for Habitat for Humanity,” she says. “He’s a really dynamic person who has helped out in many aspects of the organization.”
Sorenson easily ticks off a list of ways Geary aids the organization and advocates for it: During meetings where all staff are present, Geary comes into the office to answer phones; he spent a recent birthday working on a local Habitat for Humanity house; and he’s helped his church become one of the organization’s largest donors and volunteer group. She adds that volunteers like Geary are essential to the community.
“Habitat for Humanity is about affordable housing, which is a critical need in our area,” Sorenson says. “The measure of affordability is you’re able to put 30 percent of your income toward housing. Here, nearly half of residents pay more than that. Affordable housing can have so many positive effects on a family. Habitat for Humanity helps create stability for families and helps families build generational wealth.”
A person with good character shows trustworthiness, respect and fairness to others, as well as responsibility and citizenship. Those members who go out of their way to help others and those who overcome obstacles and lead with integrity are good candidates for the Mark V. Anderson Character-in-ActionTM Leadership Award.
Sigma Chi introduced the award to recognize the selfless acts of brothers. A formal recognition by the Fraternity allows non-members to appreciate the scope of the organization. For information about the award, see sigmachi.org/character.