Mario DeMezzo splits time between building – and raising money for – social houses and the radio

Mario DeMezzo’s great-grandfather, an Italian architect and constructor, came to Romania in late-1800 and settled down in the town of Slatina. Three generations later, his great-grandson continues the family tradition in construction, but from a different angle.

Mario runs Habitat for Humanity Romania, a non-governmental and non-profit organization that works towards eradicating substandard housing. “The difference [to my great-grandfather, e.n.] is that I am not an architect, and I am not building houses, but social houses for families in need,” Mario tells

Mario can sometimes be found on construction sites, as Habitat for Humanity Romania builds houses for the poor with the help of many corporate volunteers. But he believes his main role is not to build, but rather to “go from house to house, from team to team, from man to man and talk to them, ask them how they are, how they find the work, explain them about Habitat, be an ambassador of Habitat.” This helps the organization more, he says, and that can be seen in subsequent donations that people make, and the number of volunteers that companies send to construction sites.

Despite his Italian name and roots, Mario DeMezzo is Romanian. He comes from the town of Slatina, where his Italian ancestor had settled. In the early 2000s, he worked in the local media in Slatina as a journalist and then took a job at the City Hall for about two years. Then came his fundraising years, first with Habitat for Humanity, then with the Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation, then again with Habitat.

Mario studied law, but never professed in this area. Nowadays, while dedicating most of his time to fundraising, he still makes time for his passion for the media – and for education and children – he has two kids of his own. Mario is a show host on a local children’s radio, Itsy Bitsy. He hosts the morning show and a section where he recommends and offers books to listeners. It’s not by accident that he does the latter – a former CEO of the ALL publishing group, Mario believes that education could change Romania. However, the local educational system should first be reformed, built again from scratch, he says, “because it doesn’t keep up with the world around us.” Instead of focusing so much on information, the educational system should center more on children’s abilities and help them develop in that direction. “Centuries have changed, mentalities have changed, the student should be in the middle now, because information is everywhere,” says Mario.

The community

In 2004, when Mario started with Habitat for Humanity, if all fundraising managers ever did a national conference, a five-seat table would have been enough. “There were very few fundraising managers because back then, organizations were receiving most of their funds from abroad,” Mario explains. Things have considerably changed in the 11 years that passed, and change came gradually.

In 2007, with the help of 600 volunteers, Habitat for Humanity built 27 houses in just five days in Radauti, in Northern Romania. It was the first USD 1 million project developed by Habitat in the country and marked Romania’s entry in the European Union. It is Mario’s favorite Habitat project so far. “Each house was bearing the name of an EU member state, with the country’s flag in front of the house. Each house was built with volunteers and money from that respective country,” Mario recalls.

Foreign volunteers still come to Romania to build houses, as they share Mario’s values: social responsibility and giving back to the community. “There are Americans who pay for their accommodation, meals, and transport, and also donate USD 450 per person to work ten days in Romania. There are Americans who come here at their expense, from high school students to pensioners. The oldest volunteer was 86.”

This is less frequent among Romanians: why should they have to pay to volunteer? Those who want to volunteer have to cover their logistic costs, their accommodation, transport, and food, and make a donation towards the NGO. The organization needs the money for the construction materials, administrative costs, and salaries of professional constructors who supervise the volunteers.

Mario is personally involved in fundraising: “I suffer when I go and ask a company for money and the company says ‘no’, as I am very happy when a company gives us money.” The NGO’s yearly budget stays at about USD 2.2 million, half of which from local donations, and half still from abroad. The organization’s affiliates also implement programs of some USD 800,000, bringing the total budget to USD 3 million.

Mario must keep the organization sustainable. Habitat typically builds a house that costs EUR 35,000, which is then sold to an underprivileged family for EUR 20,000, and paid in installments with no interest, over 20 years. The families who benefit from the program are carefully assessed, including their current living conditions, their income, which should be between RON 800 and RON 1,800, and their willingness to work for the house – families also work on the house side by side with the volunteers. The NGO then uses the EUR 100 monthly installments paid by each family to build other houses, and keep the cycle going.

The Romanian state should learn from this model and from the NGOs’ experience, and work with them towards solving the problem of substandard housing in the country, believes Mario DeMezzo.

While further following Habitat for Humanity’s plans to increase budgets and fundraising levels this year, Mario has his eyes on the Big Build this autumn, their biggest project for the year: 200 volunteers will build eight houses in five days in Bacau, on the World Habitat Day in October.

Irina Popescu, [email protected]

(photo source: Mario DeMezzo on Facebook)

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