Some kids learn to ride horses. Erin Garrity Rank mastered the skill at a young age, only to become more interested in teaching it to the other children in her neighborhood than in practicing the sport herself.
“My mother would take me horse riding, and I joined a volunteer team to teach,” she recalled.
“I just wanted to share something I loved with the other kids.”
Now 44, Rank is president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, a charity that purchases land and unoccupied buildings in order to create affordable housing for some of the city’s neediest families.
Helping others was not something Rank never thought about, it was just something she and her Irish-American family did, both in their hometown of Long Beach, Calif, and later in St. Louis, Mo., where they moved when she was a seven-year-old.
“Reaching out, volunteering and helping people, they were values I grew up with,” she said, speaking to the Echo from Habitat for Humanity’s headquarters in L.A.
Initially, charity work was something she pursued in her spare time, while she was working through high school and college in Missouri, intending to pursue a career in accounting as her father had.
Eventually, she set up her own practice, whilst simultaneously working part-time as a youth outreach officer with the Greater Los Angeles office.
In 1996, Rank went on a mission trip to the Philippines to help rebuild a town that had been destroyed by a hurricane. She came home convinced that charity was not just important to her, it was something she wanted to make her life’s work.
“Part of our project there was to rebuild a church,” she recalled.
“There was no timber; there were no builders. We had to build from scratch using the resources that were there. The local people got really involved. It was a powerful experience. Even though there was a language barrier, we were all working towards a common goal and everything came together. As soon as I got home, I signed up as a volunteer with Habitat.”
Her first days as a volunteer were “very hands on,” she recalled.
“On the first day, they had me laying tiles and putting electric wires in buildings,” she laughed.
Very soon, Rank’s role became even more hands on when, in 1998, Habitat decided to hire staff for the first time. Rank was appointed executive director.
“When I started working at Habitat, it was all volunteers,” she recalled.
“The first thing I tried to do was establish a full-time staff. That enabled us to raise more money and to build up relationships in the cities we were building in. And the team needed some valuable skills.”
When Rank took over, the charity had a budget of just $200,000. In 10 years, it had built just eight homes for low-income families. Habitat For Humanity of Greater Los Angeles now has 17 staff members across the country with a network of over 3,000 volunteers. The budget is now $6 million annually, with assets totaling over $15 million. Since Rank’s appointment, the charity has built 55 homes for families with an income of below $35,000 per year.
“The unique aspect of L.A. is that there isn’t much land available, which drives up the cost,” she said, explaining the challenges of home ownership for many families there.
Habitat for Humanity aims to help struggling families to achieve home ownership every step along the way. The company has eight divisions focusing on real estate acquisition and sale, property development, construction and property management. They also offer mortgage-lending services to families to help them manage their repayments, and family and community development services.
“The main group we’re targeting people whose living conditions are sub-standard,” Rank said.
“So we’re looking at low-income families living in substandard accommodation, we’re looking at overcrowding, where people are housing their extended families. Sometimes you have three or four generations living under one roof. We’re looking at people who are living in buildings that are poorly maintained. We’ve seen people living in garages.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit, Habitat was in a unique position to help, emergency housing being one of its focus areas.
“The call went out but everybody had evacuated the area; there was no manpower and no building materials,” she recalled.
“We had access to those. We packaged up the houses here and sent them on so that they could take them straight out and stand them up. Altogether, Habitat sent between 100 and 200 of those houses. Now, we have a team there on the ground throughout the affected states, helping to repair the damage.”
Being in the position to help people in such a meaningful way is extremely rewarding, according to Rank.
“I remember seeing one family that was living in a chicken coup,” she said.
“It was a lady, she was a hairdresser who was living with her two daughters and her grandparents, both of whom were disabled. This was literally all she could afford. There was no running water, there were blankets covering the walls. They now have a three-bedroom home. It’s so rewarding to be part of that – that’s what keeps me going.
“My favorite thing to do is, at the end of the year, to drive around past all the houses we’ve built,” she continued.
“It’s so wonderful to see families settled in to their new homes, inviting distant relatives for the holidays for the first time because they didn’t have a proper home to invite them to before. That’s what makes it all worth it.”
The downside, she said, is knowing that she cannot help everybody.
“The challenge is that there’s so much greater need out there than we’re able to deal with,” she said.
Rank traces her family heritage back to Mayo.
“I’ve been back there a few times,” she said. “I try to get back at least every other summer. We have lots of family there – both my mom and my dad’s side are from Mayo.”
Garrity is very appreciative of her Irish background, which she feels was a very formative influence throughout her life.
“I think Ireland’s a beautiful country, and when I’m there, I feel like I’m home,” she said.
“I really feel that my Irish heritage helped make me into the person I am. My family had such a strong faith, and all the values I learned through my Irish culture are values that encourage people to reach out.”