Habitat for Humanity of St. Charles County (HFHSCC) is celebrating 20 years of building decent, affordable housing for families in need. And the celebration is well deserved. Starting out as a “hand-to-mouth” operation with little more than enthusiasm, determination and a desire to serve, this organization is having an impact on the lives of families in St. Charles County in a very tangible way.
But it’s been quite the journey from a desire to serve to where they are today.
It all started in 1996 when the Rotary Club of St. Charles was looking for a hands-on way to serve and support their community. Member Ron Hollis returned from a Rotary International convention with the idea that starting a St. Charles affiliate of Habitat for Humanity would be the perfect way for them to serve the community. A group of Rotarians agreed and met in an upper-room office space on 5th Street to organize and determine what was needed to get their first build going.
Habitat International provided some guidelines on family selection, pricing, etc., but the group also called upon Habitat Saint Louis, already an established affiliate, for advice and guidance as they went about the process of selecting a family, acquiring the land, writing their by-laws to apply for affiliate status and making the daunting task of building that first home possible.
For their first build, they selected a single mother, with three children under the age of ten, who was living in the basement of a house in St. Charles in hazardous conditions. At that time, they needed $50,000 and a general contractor to build this family a decent house, so Hollis set out to get both. He contacted 25 sponsors and received enough $2,500 donations to complete the project. He then convinced a man named Bill Hunsicker, owner of St. Charles Exteriors at the time, to come on board and act as general contractor.
With funds and a contractor in place, the call went out for volunteers to help with the first build. It was a “what do we need next” discussion at Thursday afternoon meetings, scrambling to get the materials delivered, building on Saturday with an all-volunteer team existence. But they were able to establish as Habitat for Humanity of St. Charles County in 1997 and complete their first home in February 1998.
Fast forward to 2017 and you’ll see an organization that has persevered through many challenges, learned, evolved, and grown. Today HFHSCC is organized, efficient, and self-sustaining. To date, they have completed 77 houses, with five more slated for completion this year. They’ve developed great relationships with the communities they build in. And they’ve cultivated a solid reputation for building quality homes for families in need who become a valuable part of their new community.
Leah Crowe, Awareness and Appreciation Coordinator for HFHSCC, points out that Habitat isn’t just about building safe, affordable homes for their partner families to live in, they also help the families be good neighbors and transition to homeownership successfully. The families, who are chosen through an application process, agree to certain requirements laid out by Habitat guidelines and are personally invested in their new homes.
Each family works with a volunteer advocate through the entire program and is required to put 350 hours of “sweat equity” into their home as part of their agreement. Family members also participate in financial education and homeownership workshops, which are completed during their build. Crowe points out that most of the families have never owned a home of their own before, so the workshops help them be good neighbors by teaching them how to care for their yard and who to call when something needs repair, among other things. And what they learn about managing their finances sets a strong foundation for financial stability for the family going forward.
Once each house is completed, community sponsors, volunteers, the family and their friends all gather for a ceremony to bless the home. Everybody gets the chance to see the results of the months of hard work and wish the family well as they start their journey as homeowners. And Crowe emphasizes that the families are actual homeowners. “People often think that Habitat gives away homes. But the families we build the homes for will actually purchase the homes once they’re completed. They have a mortgage and pay taxes, just like any other homeowner. We say the only thing we give away is an opportunity.”
The ability to offer that opportunity, however, requires resources. One of HFHSCC’s greatest resources is the volunteers who generously donate their time. They still rely on an all-volunteer workforce led by a foreman to build each home, though they do contract out the skilled-trade tasks like electrical, plumbing, and HVAC.
Individuals and groups from all walks of life work side-by-side with the homeowners on every build. Habitat offers corporate sponsorship days where volunteers come out of the office and donate their time as a group. They have some great gentleman, known as the “Wednesday Crew,” who come out regularly. And they even have all-women teams, working under names like Chip & Nails, Boa Constructors, and Hammers & Heels, who frequently help at build sites.
In terms of financial resources, The ReStore, located in St. Peters, is the financial engine of the organization, according to Jim Durney, who serves on HFHSCC’s board of directors and has been a longtime supporter of Habitat’s mission. The ReStore takes in donations of household goods and a long list of other items, which are then sold to the public at fair prices. Proceeds from the sales cover the overhead, including salaries for the administrative team and the cost of operating the ReStore. This is great, because it means that 100 percent of anything left over, along with any additional monies that come in from sponsors, donors and events can go directly into construction and the home building program.
Habitat St. Charles also hosts an annual Celebration of Trees Gala as their premier fundraiser. Held in November each year, gorgeous Christmas trees and wreaths, designed by professional decorators who volunteer their time, are featured in the evening’s silent and live auctions. The evening also includes a program where Habitat families share their inspirational stories of how Habitat has impacted their life. For Chris Hoffman, board member, past board president and co-chair of the annual event, the Celebration of Trees is so much more than just a fundraiser. “It’s the one time a year where we can get together, celebrate everything and express our gratitude to those who make it all happen.”
Making it all happen translates to Habitat’s goal of providing safe, decent, affordable housing for families in need in St. Charles County and bringing stability to their lives. For Hoffman, that means helping people be successful in whatever their journey is.
Sometimes a family’s journey puts them on a path where they just need the chance to get back on track, which is exactly what Habitat St. Charles provides. And the success stories are many. Durney remarks, “Some of our best success stories are the ones that are no longer living in the homes Habitat built. They were able to get to a better place in their lives because of the opportunity they were given and have improved their situation. That’s success, when you’ve given the opportunity for a better life.”
For more information on donating, sponsorship, volunteering or qualifications for becoming a Habitat homeowner, please visit habitatstcharles.org.
Photos courtesy of Caty Pomeroy Photography & Habitat St. Charles