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Grand Island Area Habitat for Humanity builds foundation for families and community
Open for Business is happy to recognize the Grand Island Area Habitat for Humanity (GIAHFH) as O4B Entrepreneur Extraordinaire for our November/December issue. They fully encompass the role of an extraordinary organization through the money, energy and growth they put into the local economy as well as being a shining example of how to be a productive nonprofit organization and work with for profit businesses on local level.
In 1976, Habitat for Humanity was founded by Millard and Linda Fuller. They developed the concept of “partnership housing” while building homes side-by-side with volunteers at the Koinonia Farm outside of Americus, Georgia. In 1984, Jimmy and Roselyn Carter took their first Habitat work trip to New York. With the involvement and publicity of having a former U.S. President involved, Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) saw incredible growth.
The underlying fundamentals for HFHI are rooted in the Christian ministry. Through this pathway, Rev. Roger Nelson of Grand Island, started a HFHI affiliate organization in March of 1992 through the support of his congregation at First Presbyterian and by partnering with Messiah Lutheran Church and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Rev. Nelson is still involved today and was present at the most recent home dedication.
Myth vs. Truth
Debunking the myth that HFHI gives away free houses to those in poverty has been a challenge for HFHI. This has been a misconception about HFHI from the get-go. However, the true process of this organization has much to do with why it has been such a successful and self-sustaining organization that continues to do well. HFHI builds “simple, decent, affordable” homes with qualifying lower income families.
These families must show the ability to pay Habitat’s no profit, no interest mortgage. The mortgage amount is based on their income and is often at no interest, thus no profit to HFHI. Each family that qualifies for a HFHI home goes through a home ownership course to prepare them for the financial obligation and responsibilities that go along with owning property.
Families can be of any dynamic: a single working person, a couple, a single parent or a blended family. There is an application process and a special selection committee that evaluates the needs of each applicant. Selected families are required to put in over 500 hours of sweat equity on Habitat projects which may include assisting with future home builds for other families.
So contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a free ride with HFHI, but the pride and sense of accomplishment is well worth the sacrifice.
“I found myself on a single salary renting an overpriced house that wasn't in good shape and that required my kids to share a room. After a few years of this, you get depressed thinking this is the best I can offer my family. I have a college degree, I've worked at my job for over 15 years and I manage to make ends meet but there was never any 'extra' money to put away for a down payment to own my own place,” April Mora said. “My best friend asked if I had ever thought about applying for Habitat for Humanity. My response was, ‘No, they only help minorities.’ Well, she set me right by explaining that they help anyone that financially qualifies.”
With the urging from her friend, Mora applied to GIAHFH and was selected for the June 2014 Home Builders’ Blitz Build. She put over 500 hours of sweat equity into the building of her home and the homes of other Habitat families. She currently appreciates a 0 percent interest mortgage that has a monthly payment that is less than what she previously paid in rent.
Many affiliates for HFHI begin with the passion and a few humanitarians coming together on a volunteer basis, and the origin of GIAHFH is no exception. However, because of the growth and success of the program, the volunteer board of 25 members brought on an executive director first on a part-time basis and then eventually full-time. Dana Jelinek has been the executive director since 2000. The organization’s home building, support services and loan programs area now has two full-time staff and a volunteer construction manager.
Each board member serves a three-year term that can be renewed once. They each have their special functions and responsibilities. There are several committees that facilitate the necessary functions of the organization.
Family Support & Homeowner Education
Finance Committee (Fiscal Governance, Lending and Insurance)
Fundraising & Public Relations Committee
ReStore – Home Improvement Thrift Store
Executive Director Dana Jelinek recognizes the importance of volunteers not just on her board, but also with community volunteers who help with the building process. There are many relationships that have to be fostered to create an optimal process for the families who build and purchase these homes.
Jelinek has found that the members of the board are very active in the operation of the organization. During new board member orientation, she is very clear and realistic about what is expected. She likes to get to know each member and to tap into what they like to do and what skill set they bring to the organization.
She said that they are happier and more productive when they are enjoying the time they are giving to GIAHFH.
Building a Community
GIAHFH hires subcontractors from the area to ensure that the funds spent on construction stay in the local economy. This has been very important in order to build up a network of subcontractors who are involved and also give back.
They also contract four people including a construction manager. Amos Anson has been with them for the past 10 years. He was recently recognized at a dedication for his continued service and leadership.
“Habitat, like any contractor, spends a lot of money on supplies and materials. The only way to keep lumberyards open and subcontractors in business is for them to work. We are just one of the many pieces to keeping tradespeople and suppliers open for business,” Anson said.
“I have been involved with Habitat for over 10 years. Like any good organization they need leaders to make decisions and keep things on track. I love the organization and so I volunteer my time as the construction manager to help keep things rolling.”
Local companies have been able to bring employees together for “work days” where they can get away from the daily work environment and share a different experience together as a team. This concept allows people with a common goal to work, side-by-side, on an equal level.
GIAHFH has continued to energize the community by being innovative and hosting several events throughout the year to raise funds and awareness.
Recently they hosted the Mr. Habitat Pageant. They have a Neighborhood Revitalization program for exterior improvements to existing homes. Last February, Build a Dream Dinner & Auction raised $40,000, and Cans for Habitat has raised construction funds on dozens of homes (including completely funding the build of three homes in Grand Island).
Grand Island Mayor, Jeremy Jensen commented on the importance of GIAHFH: “I think anytime that you have so many people come together to enhance somebody’s life the way we do with Habitat, that’s a heck of a good thing for our community. I am very proud to be a part of it and I know there are a lot of people involved.”
GIAHFH has reached many goals and raised awareness throughout Grand Island and beyond. One of the most exciting projects that they have executed is the Home Builder’s Blitz. This is an event where the entire home is built within one week. This has been popular due to the national trends of “extreme” home building and real estate flipping shows and promotion. It is also a way to bring a lot of people including professional builders together in a community to have fun with a project and reach a goal together.
Having an executive director with GIAHFH has also added to this organization’s success rating. Jelinek is able to coordinate the many efforts that are required to make a home build possible. When asked about the value of her role and how she fits within the organization’s structure, she explains that the Board of Directors is the coach giving the team direction, and then describes herself as the quarterback of the team.
“I call the plays and get everybody in motion. I see the big picture and can get everybody doing their jobs,“ said Jelinek. She knows that having full-time staff with GIAHFH has been critical to move forward and keep the organization growing.
Jelinek consults with many other affiliates, especially as they are getting established. She explains that she recommends they don’t organize unless they are able to hire staff that can manage the projects and do many of the administrative tasks HFH organizations must do in order to be successful. Grand Island has advised affiliates in North Platte, Columbus and Hastings.
GIAHFH was able to open a ReStore, Habitat for Humanity’s outlet store for donated supplies and overstock items. The money made in this store goes to the local affiliate. With a low unemployment rate, staffing the store has been a challenge. However, this is not an exclusive issue. The current staff in Grand Island is good at what they do, but it is an ongoing concern to fill vacancies and to train short-term employees. In fact, Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) has now decided that they will not grant affiliate stores to communities that have a population less than 50,000 because of the difficulty to staff the stores and get donations.
Surprisingly, another big task is to find qualified applicants for the homes. The reasoning for this is the misconception; that the homes are free, only for those in poverty or minority status.
Obtaining land for the continuing builds has been tough as well. There are a lot of engineering and logistical steps that have to be completed on the lots to ready them for a home; land, water, utilities for example. Currently, they don’t have the lots available to build the houses planned for 2016 in Grand Island.
GIAHFH has made a significant impact on housing in Grand Island. They recently finished their 82nd home and have three others started. Because of the shifts in the housing market, the cost of construction materials and profit margins, GIAHFH is filling a niche in the market with entry-level homes for hard working families. It is difficult for contractors to build homes of this size, price point and make any money, so GIAHFH is able to meet that need for qualifying families who want to purchase a home as well as be a part of the process.
The Career Pathways Institute (CPI) of Grand Island Public Schools is working on their first HFH home build. This is helping create that interest for students in the trades’ industries.
“As a former student of a carpentry program, I like to speak to what CPI is doing for their students. One of the teachers has been involved with Habitat for a few years now and came up with the idea of having his junior class build a Habitat house,” explains Anson. “As a student the more hands-on experience you get in the beginning helps tremendously. You're better set up for success in a trade or in a post secondary education situation. Those kids are going to be leaps and bounds ahead.”
Some of these students plan to graduate and start working in their own businesses whether it is plumbing, construction or even specializing in drywall. Others plan to go onto the community college to pursue an education in a trade field such as electrical engineering, drafting or heating and cooling technology. GIAHFH is happy to help develop future subcontractors and the workforce we will have in years to come in central Nebraska.
To get involved with Grand Island Area Habitat for Humanity, contact the local office at (308) 385-5510 or visit them online at gihabitat.org.
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