We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.
—John of Salisbury
Isaac Newton would later reiterate this quote to state that the credit to his achievements belongs to those who came before him as much as they do himself. After speaking with Jason Hafeman, I find his attitude just as much shares in the humble nature of these persons through his efforts and successes with Project Home and Dane Buy Local.
The virtues of strong communities are often found in cycles of reciprocity, but it all starts with someone reaching out. It wasn’t too long ago the lingering shade-reborn we call “the economy” found itself on death’s doorstep once again. Jason recalls, “I was a new dad. I had a one-year-old son, and here I am. I lost my job. My wife had recently finished nursing school and was working part-time. It was tough.”
A familiar story, and one not often met with a happy ending. But sometimes opportunity shines from undusted selves and those who knew us long ago. “I had a friend,” Jason says, “who I grew up with who works at Project Home. I knew him since we were five years old. And he said, ‘Okay, this will be different for you, but we’re hiring because we just got an influx of money for a weatherization program, which is all about energy-efficiency improvements for low-income residents.’” With a new house and growing family in Eau Claire, the decision to uproot their lives and make a move to Madison wasn’t automatic. But Jason’s wife was onboard, and her courage to take a chance soon became his own.
Jason found himself with a position on the weatherization crew of Project Home. Working in attics and crawl spaces was unexplored territory for Jason, but the work gave him another mentor, Juan. “When I started out new and all these things were new to me, he was really patient,” Jason says of Juan. “He showed me how to do everything. He trained me. And the things that I didn’t get right away, he was helpful and positive and patient with me. Not all people that are training people, especially in the trades, are like that.” And it was Juan who would push Jason to apply for a crew leader position, which would eventually lead him to his current role as outreach manager.
With an appreciation for the work the weatherization crew exhibits and a recognition of how opportunity disguises itself, Jason now sees how he can extend the same saving graces through Project Home to communities and individuals in the Greater Madison area. “Most of the time, to have those opportunities you need someone to give you a chance. We all have to have someone take a chance on us, otherwise we don’t get anywhere.” Project Home has become the vehicle through which Jason can take a chance on others more immediately thanks to the 501(c)(3) nonprofit already having reverence in the area.
It often starts with the recognition of where a struggle exists. “A lot of people don’t like to ask for help,” Jason says. “But the programs are there to give people a hand and make a permanent improvement.” Often the idea of permanent improvements plays a keystone role in the work Jason does. He sees a person’s income as a pie, and something like, say, a regularly flooding basement cuts into that pie frequently. By doing some light landscaping and coercing water to gather and flow away from the house, that homeowner might find a bit of extra money they can use to better their situation rather than taking a seasonal hit multiple times a year.
That’s what success looks like in Jason’s world—improving the life of an individual so they can better their community, which in turn benefits everyone in the area. Some of his work involves teaching classes to arm capable homeowners with the tools and know-how to make weatherization improvements to their own homes as well as their neighbors’ if they’re so inclined. Jason never gets tired of hearing the phone calls from houses Project Home has worked on after a big storm. Calls like “I can’t believe it. This is the first time my basement didn’t flood during a rain.”
The theme of reciprocity in Jason’s life is furthered by his work with Dane Buy Local. “When I started in the outreach role, I started looking into different ways we could connect Project Home with the community. Dane Buy Local was one of the first organizations I found, and it fit really well because we’re not a regional chapter of a bigger organization—we’re a local nonprofit. Dane Buy Local is all about connecting local businesses and nonprofits and giving them a bigger voice. We understand that if we’re promoting local business, we’re all going to be better off.”
All these pieces of Jason really compose a deeper philosophy that takes part in all the work he does. The idea that, though he’s taken chances, he’s been provided the opportunity to do so is something Jason doesn’t let go unnoticed. He works within the reality he experiences time and time again. “Ninety-five percent of the homes I’ve been in, these are just people that need some help, whether it’s health related or they lost their job or now it’s a single parent trying to raise three or four kids. Everyone’s struggling in one way or another, but these people are really struggling.” Sure, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the wheel barely holding on with two lugs might be more worth your attention.
It’s come up multiple times in this article, but I want to give Jason the last word so he can reiterate his credo. “We have to be brave enough to take some chances to do something great. We also need some people to believe in us and take chances on us.”
To see more of what Project Home does for the Greater Madison area, check out projecthomewi.org .
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.