Article By: Paul Long
Photos By: Josh Triggs
While some businesses and organizations may slow down during the winter months, the staff and volunteers of Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Panhandle are as busy as ever, getting the organization’s latest home ready for occupancy.
Habitat, an affiliate of Habitat International, has been active locally since 1993. During that time, the organization has built 35 homes and is currently working on its 36th. Of those, all but two are located in Berkeley County. Jefferson and Morgan counties have one Habitat home apiece.
Typically, executive director Ed Grove said recently, Habitat strives to build one or two homes per year.
For the past several months, the local Habitat organization has been branching out into what Grove calls “critical repair.”
The goal of this program, he said, is to help residents “age in place,” thereby keeping the elderly and disabled in their homes.
“That’s a program we’re investing in, in a major way now,” Grove said.
Critical repair entails performing much needed maintenance work, building wheelchair ramps and remodeling bathrooms, among other things. Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Panhandle is also investing in a micro homes project as part of the organization’s disaster relief arm. The idea first took hold last June during the severe flooding that killed 23 people and devastated large portions of southern West Virginia. State Sen. John Unger, a minister in three churches in the Eastern Panhandle who is also Habitat’s director of development, was in the southern part of the state at the time and saw the devastation firsthand.
“The need was for immediate shelter there,” Grove said. “People were living in tents, garages and sheds.”
Habitat recently launched a partnership with the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Hedgesville to help build micro homes to be shipped to Clay County. Students in Rumsey’s carpentry, electrician and plumbing classes are working on the project. Habitat signed a contract with the school to produce one home, while a $75,000 grant from Procter & Gamble – which is opening a large production facility in southern Berkeley County later this year – will provide funding for two more.
A fourth micro home is being built by a group of inmates through an agreement with the West Virginia Department of Corrections.
It’s exciting seeing this as a place where inmates can participate in a positive, constructive way,” said Grove. Most of the new Habitat homes being built locally these days are located in the Auburndale subdivision in the city of Martinsburg. The organization has already completed five houses there, and the one currently under construction is going there as well. That one will be the local chapter’s first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant home and will go to a man with spina bifida. According to Grove, Habitat’s market is low-income people who don’t qualify for home loans in the commercial market. Working within Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines, the organization has established three criteria:
1.) A family must currently reside in substandard housing;
2.) Their current residence isn’t conducive to their lifestyle – for example, someone with a wheelchair resides on the third floor of a building – and
3.) The partner family must log 500 hours of “sweat equity,” helping to build the home or assisting Habitat in some other way. Of those hours, 200 must come from the partner family itself while the other 300 can come from their friends, extended family and other volunteers.
Sweat equity, Grove explained, doesn’t necessarily involve turning screws and pounding nails. Some partner families log hours working in the Habitat office, making phone calls on the organization’s behalf or helping out at the Habitat Re-Store.
The Re-Store is located at 650 W. Race St., a short walk from the Habitat office at 630 W. Race St. It is open from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The Re-Store carries a wide range of donated household items ranging from construction materials like windows, doors, sinks and toilets for remodeling, to tools, furniture and appliances.
Grove said Habitat officials would like to offer more lumber supplies. The organization doesn’t deliver Re-Store items but does pick them up. Houses are not simply given to families, Grove said. Rather, they are sold at zero percent interest with low-cost mortgages. It typically takes a year to 18 months from the time a family is selected until they are ready to move in.
The home currently under construction is being sponsored by the Berkeley County Cluster of United Methodist Churches, Grove said.
Volunteers are essential to the success of Habitat for Humanity, and the Eastern Panhandle chapter certainly has no shortage of them. Grove said three or four work at the Re-Store while two or three help out in the office from time to time.
When a home is under construction, anywhere from 55 to 65 volunteers are working at the site. This includes individuals, church groups and scout troops. The Martinsburg High School football team has helped out as well.
And, according to Grove, a local Girl Scout troop often shows up to provide food for the workers. Each September, the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle holds its annual Day of Caring, and Habitat for Humanity has occasionally participated. Grove said Day of Caring projects have taken place at the Re-Store, but not at Habitat construction sites. Watching a family go through the process and emerge with a home they can call their own is a rewarding time, not just for the family, but for everyone involved with the project, said Grove.
“It’s an incredible experience,” he said. “So many of our families have rented. This time it’s theirs. No one is looking over their shoulders.”
Of the 35 Habitat homes that have been built locally, approximately 85 percent are still occupied by the original families. “The rate of turnover is low,” Grove said.
For Grove, who has served as executive director for the past four years, Habitat is a part of his life about which he is extremely passionate.
“I’m much more about family than I am about house,” he said. “I tell my staff that all the time.”
The Habitat office staff is comprised of nine people, all of whom are considered part-timers, though many invest more than 40 hours a week in the organization. In addition to Grove, the staff includes Karin Dunn as director of operations, Karen Farrell as office manager and intake officer – the person who typically serves as the first point of contact with the partner families – Sherry Bourgeois as director of marketing and public relations, Cliff Huie (a volunteer) as financial officer, Unger as director of development and Jimmy Shockey as the contractor for the critical repair program.
Grove, a United Methodist minister, has worked with Habitat for Humanity since the mid-1990s in a variety of roles. He began as a volunteer and served as director of development for a short time before becoming executive director. He often puts in 40 to 50 hours a week, many of them unpaid. A major part of his job involves lining up sponsorships like the one area Methodist churches have lined up for the Habitat house currently under construction. “It’s only part-time, but it’s my passion,” Grove said. Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Panhandle receives funding from HUD, the United Way and various fundraising efforts. Its chief fundraiser each year is an exhibition basketball game featuring the Harlem Ambassadors. Donations are also accepted at the organization’s website, www.habitatep.org.
According to Grove, many people don’t realize that mortgage money from each of the Habitat homes comes back to the organization and is then used for the construction of more homes.
Habitat for Humanity performs several functions in the community. According to Grove, it is a construction company, a mortgage company and a social services agency rolled into one.
“We get in touch with the need of the community,” he said, “and find ways to meet that need.”