From Huron Valley to Haiti – how our work at home helps families abroad

[Blog Post by Rob Nissly, Housing Director]

I love my job!  What we do every day here at Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley is very rewarding.  We are renovating and selling more homes than ever to Habitat partner families.  We are serving more non-Habitat families through our Veterans, Critical Repair, Weatherization and Energy Efficiency programs.  Our ReStore does a great job of keeping tons of materials from landfills while providing needed revenue to the affiliate.  There is a lot to get excited about and the community’s awareness of our work continues to increase.

However, Edeline and her three siblings are on my mind.  They now live in Léogâne, Haiti near the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake.  We met at Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter 2012 Work Project an annual event where volunteers from around the world come together to make a difference.  In 2012, 500 volunteers provided financial support and physical labor to build a simple decent place to live for 100 families in the Santo community in Léogâne.  The conditions were harsh for the volunteers – long days in the heat, working hard to reach the aggressive building goals, and using makeshift tools while living in a “tent city” that was formerly a school’s soccer field.  Over the course of the week with my broken French I was able to learn more about Edeline’s family.  They had lost their parents in the disaster and were living under a makeshift lean-to made of cardboard, metal, cloth and other materialsthey found along the road.  Her father had had a good job, she had been able to go to our equivalent of high school, and things were generally positive until the earthquake.  Since then, every day had been a struggle – where will the next meal come from, where will they stay if it rains, and when will the young siblings be able to go to school?  All of this responsibility landed quickly and squarely on the shoulders of 17 year old Edeline.


She couldn’t imagine how much better life would be after we were able to complete their house and all of the strangers (now friends) returned home.  The homes were very small, but well constructed with the hope withstanding future natural disasters.  The foundations were concrete, the walls treated lumber, and the roofs were metal.  Each home shared a well with four other families and they had a latrine and a “shower” in a separate structure behind each home.  She had dreamed of this week after she had been selected to be one of the 100 families that would be receiving a Habitat home as part of our work that year.  She was so grateful that people would invest their time and money to help her family.  She felt that there was no way to repay this kindness.  For me, the opportunity to build the structure that would shelter Edeline and her family was more than enough return.

A few months ago I learned that the families in the community were thriving.  Incomes that had been around .50 USD per day have increased ten to twenty fold.  People are able to be productive because they didn’t have to worry daily about their living situation. Edeline is now working at home creating crafts that she sells at the local market – earning money to be used to feed the family.  A garden was started that supplied fresh food year-round.  Her siblings are now going to school, an important opportunity in this impoverished nation.  For these four children their lives were forever changed by my group of volunteers.  Although not evident in the moment, we were the ones receiving the greatest gift.

Another thing I love about my job is that for every home we renovate and sell here in Washtenaw County, our Habitat affiliate with community support sends money to both Guatemala and Haiti to build an equivalent number of home abroad.  We are more – we are Habitat!

Habitat’s four areas of investment — critical to our success

[Blog Post by Sarah Stanton, Executive Director]

As an organization, we are faced with new challenges every day. From balancing construction schedules to creating programs that address the ever-changing needs of our community, there is never a dull moment at Habitat. One way that we have been able to keep the foundation of our work strong is by identifying our organization’s four areas of investment, which I tend to think of as the four legs to our stool. The strength of each of these areas is critical to our success. At any one time, one of these areas may be weaker than the others and require more focus. Each leg of the stool has to hold its’ weight for the whole organization to be stable, and to grow.

The first leg is families – we are only as strong as the pipeline of our families/buyers and our homeowners. The process we have used to recruit and qualify families has adapted over the years and continues to adapt, based on what is happening in our economy, the profile of the neighborhoods we are building in, and other factors. We never lose sight of the fact that the success of our families as homeowners is at the core of the work we do.

Another area of focus has to be our properties and products. One of our greatest strengths as an organization has been our ability to respond and adjust to the changing needs of our community and the changing resources needed to make those adjustments. We have changed from single, stick built new construction to an attempt at multifamily housing, to renovations, and we have added a number of additional products to serve more families, including critical repairs and weatherization of homes, exterior improvements and energy efficiency improvements like furnace, refrigerator and water heater replacements. If we had stubbornly continued to focus on single lot new construction, we would not have been able to grow and help more families achieve and sustain affordable homeownership.

A third leg of our stool is organizational capacity. The saying, “you get more of what you focus on”, is evident at Habitat. I have found that we are much stronger if we are critical of ourselves and regularly take the temperature in each area of the organization. In order to grow and be strong we have to invest time and resources in areas where we may be struggling or static. When the Michigan housing market changed so dramatically, we had to make a big change to renovating foreclosed properties from new construction. We hired Rob Nissly, a longtime volunteer and board member, to join the staff and implement the process of purchasing and renovating properties. Without making that investment and recruiting the specific expertise needed to make that change, we would not have been able to grow and take advantage of the market changes.

The final leg of our stool is resources/money.   There is no getting around it: Habitat, just like any other business, needs working capital to be successful. We have worked really hard to develop a diverse mix of funding.  We rely heavily on private fundraising from individuals, corporations and congregations, and these funds provide not only the cash we need to purchase and renovate properties and offer 0% interest mortgages for buyers, but I believe it validates that we are making the difference that our community wants to see.  We also take advantage of public funds wherever possible. There are government funds targeted at affordable homeownership, and we have partnered with The Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development and officials at Ypsilanti Township to leverage these funds in very efficient ways. Our homeowner mortgage payments are another regular source of income for future development – we call it our revolving fund. We hold the mortgage for every house sold with a 0% interest mortgage for 15-20 years.  The homeowners make monthly mortgage payments that are put right back into the renovation of the next home. Talk about “pay it forward”, Habitat’s model ensures that homeowners contribute to the organization’s sustainability. Finally, we have invested in starting the Habitat ReStore, a business that generates much-needed general funds for the homeownership program.  The ReStore also serves the community by recycling products like building materials, appliances, furniture, lighting and flooring. This successful small business promotes affordable homeownership by making gently used materials available for inexpensive home improvements.

As we continue to grow, things will continue to change. By keeping these four areas of investment on our forefront and taking them into consideration in all that we do, we will be able to adapt to community needs and handle challenges in the strongest way possible. I invite you to read our full history here to learn more about how we got to where we are today, and check out our latest Annual Report to learn about what we have been doing lately and get some glimpses into where we are going. We look forward to the future, and the possibilities that it will bring — we hope you will join us as we continue to grow. We can’t do it without you.



105 Executive MBA students help 22 families in West Willow…in one day.

[Blog Post by Carmen Gillespie, Development Associate]


Three University of Michigan buses lined Tyler St in the neighborhood of West Willow in Ypsilanti in the early hours of a muggy Wednesday, August 20, 2014. As the bus doors opened, out poured 105 of the newest Executive MBA students from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Any passerby might have thought to themselves, “What the heck is going on here?” The answer to that question may surprise some: it was all part of EMBA Citizenship Day – an orientation activity for new Executive MBA students that helps Ross students build community and teamwork while reinforcing the idea that business, and business leaders, can make a positive difference in the world. And what a difference they made…

My job for the day was to be the “paparazzi”…since my construction skills are next to none, and there were already enough crew leaders assigned for the day, I figured my energy would be much better used capturing the moments of the day (I’m not claiming to be a photographer by any means, but hey, at least I can take a better photo than hammer a nail!). I charged my camera, and was armed and ready to get some great shots! The group of 105 split up into 17 smaller groups, and each headed out to work on exterior home improvement projects at one of 17 different homes in the neighborhood. My task seemed simple enough: get lots of pictures of all of the groups, both action shots and some posed shots.  I got in my car and took a look at the neighborhood map to plan the best route to hit all of the houses, and I was on my way.

My first stop was 712 Dorset Ave. I parked my car and hopped out, approaching the house in amazement. The group had not yet been there for much more than five minutes, and I noticed that the jungle-like plants that had been overtaking the house not even an hour earlier when I was dropping off the yard sign, were gone! Impressive, I thought to myself. Now let’s see if I can get some smiles. I began to snap some pictures, but wasn’t able to get many before I was stopped by a few of the EMBA students. Instead of asking me for help, or complaining about the thick, muggy air, they asked me how I was doing and continued to inquire about how I became involved with Habitat and how they were so excited to be out and helping in our community.

The day continued on much of the same trend. Every house I came to, the EMBA students greeted me with smiles and genuine excitement. In addition to the students that were working, many of the homeowners were out and about, working alongside the students and showing their gratitude for the work that was being done on their homes.



It was people like Wendy Alcorn, homeowner of 773 Dorset Ave, who really brought home what this day was all about. Wendy first offered me a cup of coffee, and then went on to share that she hadn’t slept in three days because she was so excited about this day! Later in the day when I came back for round two of pictures, I encountered a scenario I wasn’t expecting to see:  a group of about eight EMBA students were pushing Wendy’s inoperable van back into hear driveway after they idled it out of the way so they could clear overgrown trees and bushes from Wendy’s backyard. One of the EMBA students even provided a dump truck from his excavating company to make sure everything was exposed of responsibly! Wendy teared up and quietly let us know that she had never even seen her backyard before and this was so overwhelmingly wonderful. How amazing.

What I didn’t realize when I signed up for my paparazzi job was how many different people I would have the chance to briefly get to know, and how fascinating it would be to hear their stories. Not only were the 105 EMBA students enthusiastic and ready to tackle any project that we presented to them, the families that had exterior home improvement projects done on their homes in West Willow that day were truly a joy to be around. When the students finished the 17 planned houses early, an additional five families received an “exterior face-lift” just because! For those students to have been able to help with even the most minor project for a family, had more of an impact on their lives than any of us probably realize. As we begin our work in West Willow, we look forward to getting to know more families and to work alongside them to make their neighborhood all that it can be. Special thank you to the EMBA students for helping us kick off the neighborhood revitalization work in this community. It truly was a spectacular day.

As for my paparazzi skills….you can check out the full Facebook album here, and I’ll let you be the judge…