Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit Christian housing ministry that believes every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. The organization builds and repairs houses all over the world using volunteer labor and donations, and their partner families purchase the homes through no-interest mortgage loans.
Not long ago, the Pittsburgh chapter of Habitat for Humanity received a boost when Andrew McCutchen decided to join the effort. The Pirates' multi-talented centerfielder was one of several Major League players who participated in a Habitat for Humanity project during All-Star week in Kansas City last summer, and in December a few of the families involved with the program locally came to PirateFest as his guests.
Then one morning in mid-April, McCutchen surprised Shawnda Little-Dreher by visiting the home that she's refurbishing in the McKeesport area. Decked out in his gray Habitat for Humanity t-shirt, cargo shorts and a pair of work gloves, he helped by carrying sheets of drywall, removing some of the old kitchen tile, and even sweeping up. But more than anything, his presence helped raise the spirits of everyone involved.
"I didn't even know he was going to be here," said Little-Dreher. "I saw him and then I looked again and I was like, 'Hey I know him. That's Andrew McCutchen.' It was very nice."
Shawnda, her husband Timothy Dreher and the couple's 15-year-old daughter Tamia plan to move into the home sometime in July. The family currently rents a small house in a section of McKeesport that has seen a dramatic spike in crime, which has them concerned about their safety. Plus the landlord has plans to sell the property, which threatened to leave them without a place they could afford.
McCutchen didn't mind getting his hands dirty at the home build, saying: "I get dirtier on the baseball field." What's more, he plans to visit more sites over the course of the 2013 baseball season. His relationship with Habitat for Humanity is still in the early stages, but word is he will also help the organization raise funds and create more awareness.
McCutchen relates well to Habitat for Humanity families because he lived in a very modest home in Ft. Meade, FL, when he was a kid and his family had to work very hard to make sure he had the opportunity to become a baseball player and the opportunity to live a good life. A photo of him standing in front of his former home was shared with his Facebook and Twitter followers, and Habitat for Humanity included it with their annual appeal letter.
"A lot of these families are less fortunate than the average person," McCutchen said. "They're hard-working families. They just can't support themselves totally financially. They need help. It hits home for me because my parents had me when they were very young, so there were a lot of things they had to go through to get support. They needed help from other families and they needed help from friends.
"So any way, shape or form that I can help out, I definitely want to be a part of it. It means a lot to be able to lend a helping hand."
Maggie Withrow, the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh, has been involved with the organization since 1994, and she welcomed McCutchen with open arms.
"We couldn't be more excited that Andrew wants to work with us and volunteer with us," she said. "I can sense that he believes in the families and he believes in the Habitat program being a hand up not a hand out. He gets it that these families aren't taking free homes from Habitat -- because they're not free homes.
"The families have to invest 300 hours of sweat equity as a down payment on their home. They work to own the home and then they pay back their interest-free mortgage. I think that's where he's making the connection is that it's not a handout.
"His parents had to work hard to get him where he is. He personally sees that it takes a lot of effort on our families' parts to earn the Habitat house. One of our goals in working with him is that he can help us get the message out that Habitat isn't, and never will be, a giveaway program."
Withrow still looks at that picture of McCutchen standing in front of the house where he used to live in Florida quite often.
"He's come a long way from there," she said. "That picture showed me, 'This is why he gets it.' He knows you can come out of some sort of substandard housing and you can pull yourself out of that if the right people are ready, willing and able to help you."
Shawnda Little-Dreher is looking forward to that experience.
"Where I'm at now, I have to get out of there. I need to get out of there," she said from the front lawn of her future home. "This is a nice area, a nice neighborhood. I'm very excited. Looking around is making me feel like, 'Yeah, we're on our way.'"