story by Brittany Shepard | photos by Drew Chapman
The Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity began its mission to provide decent, affordable housing to low income families twenty-seven years ago when two caring individuals saw the need for this type of organization in Dothan and the surrounding communities. They established the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, and the organization has grown in scope and service throughout the years.
Serving Dale, Geneva, Henry and Houston Counties, Wiregrass Habitat has built 125 affordable homes for families since it began in 1990. Currently, the nonprofit is working on its 126th and 127th homes! One home of is for Sonja Kirkland and her children in Dothan, and the other is for Cara Cole and her children in Daleville.
Sonja has especially loved the opportunity that she has had for herself and her two boys – Radarius and Rashaad Fields – to work with the organization and learn from them.
“My experience has been great, and I love all the people there,” said Sonja. “It is wonderful that they have opened their hearts and started this program to help others. If it weren’t for them, I would not be able to own my own home and provide that for my sons.”
Sonja said that she and her sons have enjoyed the classes they have been a part of during the process of building their Habitat home including financial classes and classes about how to maintain and work on their home.
“I never thought I would be holding a hammer and some nails, but it has been great to learn and also to use what I learn to be able to help others with their homes.”
Besides building new homes, Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity (WHFH) also partners with other organizations that focus on weatherization and repairs and have served over 190 families in this way.
Executive Director Amy Schutz has worked for WHFH since September 2011, and has seen how the organization has impacted these families’ lives for the better.
“No matter who we are or where we come from, we all deserve to have a decent life. We deserve to feel strength and stability day after day. We deserve to know we have the power to take care of ourselves and build our own futures,” said Amy. “At Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity, this is what unites us. Through shelter, we empower.”
Amy said that a common misconception of the organization is that it “gives away” homes to those in need. Families that have a Habitat home built for them or receive home repairs and weatherization must have verifiable income to afford the home and must also help with the build or repair process.
“We sell the homes at no profit to ourselves with a 0% interest mortgage which allows our homeowners to afford the home,” said Amy. “That is the only difference between our mortgage and a traditional mortgage.”
The homeowners still have to pay the escrow including the homeowners insurance, property taxes, and termite bond. The home is not a free home, but a safe, decent and now affordable one with the system that WHFH uses.
“We want to give them a hand up and not a hand out,” said Amy. “We work in partnership with them, assisting them through homeownership, to rise above poverty.”
Tell us a little about the history of the national Habitat for Humanity organization.
Habitat for Humanity International was founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller. The concept that grew into what is now Habitat for Humanity International was born at Koinonia Farm –a small, interracial Christian community outside of Americus, Georgia. Koinonia Farm was founded in 1942 by farmer and biblical scholar Clarence Jordan. The Fullers first visited Koinonia in 1965 after having recently left a successful business and affluent lifestyle in Montgomery, Alabama, to begin a new life of Christian service. At Koinonia, Jordan and Fuller developed the concept of “partnership housing.” The concept centered on those in need of adequate shelter working side by side with volunteers to build simple, decent houses. Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity International and their affiliates have built or repaired homes for over 6.8 million people.
What services does Wiregrass Habitat provide?
WHFH builds homes through the new construction program for low-income individuals and families. Through our Critical Home Repair and Weatherization Program, WHFH is able to help low-income homeowners with repairs such as replacing a leaking roof, replacing inoperable plumbing or updating the electrical parts of a home to a safe condition. We also weatherize homes in order to lower electric bills for low-income homeowners allowing them to have more money for their other basic needs. We also build wheelchair ramps for low-income homeowners to make it easier for them to enter and exit their home.
Between 2010 and 2015, through the A Brush with Kindness and Critical Home Repairs and Weatherization programs, WHFH assisted over 190 families with home repairs and rehabilitations, weatherization and exterior revitalization as well as building wheelchair ramps greatly multiplying the families served in the Wiregrass.
You are working on your 126th and 127th home builds right now – one in Dothan an done in Daleville. Tell our readers more about this process and famailies that will receive this new home.
Our build in Dothan is being funded through the generosity of Wells Fargo Bank, L.B.A. C.A.R.E.S. and our Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity Women Build. Volunteers from all of these organizations as well as others within the community are helping to make this home a reality by giving up their Saturdays to work on this home for Sonja Kirkland and her two sons.
Our Daleville home is being built in partnership with funds received from Wiregrass Foundation and matching funds raised by Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity as well as Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity Women Build. This home is being built for Cara Cole and her children. They have been working hard to earn their hours by working on their home as well as other homes. We have many volunteer groups who have already contacted us about working on this home such as Corvias Military Living.
How are families chosen to have a home built for them by Habitat?
In order to be eligible for the WHFH program, the individuals and families chosen must meet three basic criteria. First, they must demonstrate a need for a home. They could be living in substandard housing where the condition of the structure is poor. They may be in transitional subsidized housing as provided by the Housing Authority’s public housing or Section 8 programs or may live in overcrowded conditions or temporary living arrangements such as with friends or family.
Second, they must have the ability to pay for the home. All of our homeowners are low-income, but they must demonstrate verifiable income sufficient to pay for the home. The only difference between a WHFH mortgage and a traditional mortgage is that it is 0% interest.
Third, they must be willing to partner with the Habitat for Humanity mission. By partnering, we mean that they must volunteer 500 hours with our affiliate. Those hours include working on someone else’s home, working on their home, having friends and family volunteer and working at fundraising and informational outreach events. Of the 500 hours, 50 hours are spent in required workshops centered on topics that will serve to educate and empower them as future homeowners such as predatory lending, home maintenance, pest control, and decorating on a dime.
Those who apply must be evaluated to make sure they meet these three basic criteria. We have a committee of volunteers who, after the applicants have gone through a credit check and criminal background check, meet with the applicants and view their living situation to determine if the individual or family qualifies for our program. Not everyone is ready for homeownership when they apply. We work hard to make sure the families selected are ready for the responsibility of homeownership.
How are the projects funded?
The homes are funded through donations from individuals, businesses, churches, civic organizations and grants. We also have a ReStore that sells donated items such as gently used appliances, furniture and building materials, to name just a few. We have a selection of new paint and paint supplies. The funds our ReStore receives also help continue our mission to eliminate substandard housing in the Wiregrass.
What can our readers do to get involved?
There are many ways to help Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity. They can join us on the build site. Most of our volunteer days are Saturdays, but we can always accommodate individuals or groups during the week. We have one construction person on site during the week, and they can always use a couple of volunteers to help him. They can donate to our ReStore, shop in our ReStore or volunteer in it. Often we have volunteers provide lunch, snacks and water to our volunteers on site. Even if someone cannot swing a hammer, we can still use their help on a build.
Where can our readers go to get more information about Wiregrass Habitat for Humanity?
Our website, wiregrasshabitat.org, is kept up-to-date with what we have coming up. We also have a monthly e-newsletter. This is a great way to see what we are doing and gather information about what projects we have going on. Or they can always all the office at (334)792-8453.