Habitat mission: Build a better future for families

DOVER — It would be extremely difficult to write an advertisement seeking people to come work for the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity.

It would read, “Wanted: Workers to spend long hours outside in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, building houses alongside inexperienced workers for no pay and no chance for advancement.”

Thankfully for Dan Simpson, the executive director for the CDHFH, there are enough people in Kent County who care and have the heart and selflessness to donate their time helping other individuals and families improve their life situations by providing them not only with a house – but a home.

Looking back on 2018, Mr. Simpson had provided his organization with a virtually unattainable goal of constructing 15 houses. The CDHFH finished the year by putting a record six families in a record-setting seven efficient new homes built in Kent County, including one that is used for AmeriCorps member housing.

“By shooting for a number that was out of reach we were able to do more than we ever have done before,” Mr. Simpson said. “Our community impact is broad. You can measure the impact that it has on a family. For example, we know for a fact that families, and children who grow up with families that own their home, that stability results in statistically higher percentages of education, higher levels of education, better success in school. That kind of stability is literally immeasurable to the family itself.

“But what often-times is lost in our mission that you don’t see that is every bit as critical is the change in the neighborhood itself.”

That change is starting to be felt in the Downtown Development District of Dover. Its’ goal is to change the culture of some of the historically troubled spots of downtown Dover one house at a time through the pride of new home ownership.

Habitat completed four homes in the DDD last year, bringing the total number of new homes built by the organization in downtown Dover to 19.

Not only that, but the CDHFH also worked with NCALL to purchase 13 blighted and abandoned properties inside the DDD last year. It has already demolished and removed a dozen of the properties while the last is in the process of being taken down.

Fred Neil, a city councilman who represents the Third District, is a big supporter of the CDHFH and said he can see the impact it is having in the downtown area.

“It’s phenomenal,” Councilman Neil said. “Basically, there’s a lot of love that goes into it and the people are absolutely so appreciative of what’s happening and it’s good for the city. I’ve seen entire blocks down on South Kirkwood and New Street, it’s like a new city. All of blight is gone, it’s now safer and it’s a family environment that makes me have a great deal of pride with what’s happening in the city.

“I’m a cheerleader to make sure that they understand how much we do appreciate the overall effect (the CDHFH’s work) has in the city and making it a much safer place to live and to be.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen agreed that great changes are taking place within the city.

“There’s that certain feeling that I share with those homeowners that Habitat has created a home of their own,” Mayor Christiansen said, noting that last Wednesday was the 40th anniversary of his family moving into its first house in Dover. “It’s just a feeling that you have something that belongs to you and is part of the American dream.

“What we have in the city of Dover, the mayor and council and the citizens that we serve, want to thank Habitat for all its’ efforts in rebuilding the downtown Dover area. We support Habitat 100 percent.”

All about the volunteers

Mr. Simpson is always quick to point out that Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity would be nothing without its volunteers.

During 2018, a total of 1,162 volunteers worked 12,562 hours to support the organization’s construction projects. That amounts to about $200,000 in actual cost of labor.

Larry Cook, a building volunteer with the CDHFH, said that once the feeling of helping others gets in your blood it’s hard to stop. It truly is a labor of love.

“It’s a lot like talking about your family,” Mr. Cook said. “When you first get married you don’t know your relatives very well and after a while you get to know them very well. That’s happened over the last five or six years for my wife and I.

“The relationship is great between workers and the homeowners, and also the staff and other people in the community, such as the mayor of Dover. It’s been really great to develop these strong bonds with all these various people that we work with.”

Kathy Bertts, also a volunteer with Habitat, said the big payoff comes when she gets to see the faces of the families when they cut the ribbon and move into the new homes.

“Most of the homeowners express the same emotion,” Ms. Bertts said. “They all feel blessed to be able to have a home. Most of them are first-time homeowners. They feel privileged to be able to work on their own home.

“They also have a sense of belonging to a community and a neighborhood. Their kids can go to school. Their kids can play with other kids and they don’t have to worry about them. They just feel genuinely blessed by the whole event.”

The CDHFH not only builds affordable houses, it also operates the ReStore at 544 Webbs Lane in Dover. The store, which is basically run by volunteers and features affordable furniture, building supplies and many other items, helps support the organization’s home-building efforts.

The ReStore enjoyed record-breaking gross sales of $406,055 in 2018 while a total of 1,006 volunteers contributed 6,192 hours in support of the store’s operations. It also received a total of 3,109 donations from local residents, businesses and contractors.

“We’re a mortgage lender, we’re an advocate for affordable housing, we’re a construction company, we’re a retail operation … We do all of this with seven dedicated full-time people,” Mr. Simpson said. “Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity’s mission statement is ‘seeking to demonstrate God’s love by bringing people together to build affordable homes, community and hope.’

“In our community, we take great pride that our hard work and our effort directly impacts the people that are right here in central Delaware and in Kent County.”

Home ownership is the goal

The CDHFH said it might seem to be a cliché, but it also rings true for the people who elect to build new houses with it — it’s not about a handout, it’s about a hand-up.

There is a definite need for affordable housing in Kent County.

According to the Delaware State Housing Authority:

• 18.9 percent of county children 18 and younger live at or below the poverty level.

• 21.5 percent of county households have a family income of less than $25,000.

• 57 percent of county renters cannot afford a two-bedroom fair market rental.

• 21.6 percent of renter households (2,906 families) are spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent.

• In 2014, a minimum wage worker in Kent County would have had to work 97 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom fair market rental at $910.00.

Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity gives families who are facing these challenges the dream of home ownership.

Eligible applicants must meet specific income requirements, be willing to partner with CDHFH, pay an interest-free Habitat mortgage and complete a vigorous 250 hours of sweat equity on their home.

Meygan Beckle, a Habitat homeowner, came across the organization out of chance.

“I always thought Habitat was for people who had been through some kind of disaster, so I never knew that an average person such as myself could get into home ownership,” Ms. Beckle said. “I was always the one who said I never wanted a home, because I’ve been single and I thought it would be very expensive and a lot of responsibility for me to take on.”

She said that a co-worker told her to check out Habitat and the opportunities it could provide.

“In my mind I said ‘This is not going to work out,’ but I’m just going to humor (my co-worker) and let her see that this is not going to work out,” said Ms. Beckles, “because I have so many disappointments because I always fall into this category where they always say, ‘You make slightly too much money.’

“I was accepted, and I was like, ‘This is great.’ Finally, it was my turn. I wish my mom was here to see the progress that I’ve made with my life and having a home ownership. The reward at the end is so great. I would say to other people that are looking for a home, don’t let your fears hold you back.”

Sandra Tibbitt, who is also a new Habitat for Humanity homeowner, can’t get enough of seeing others fulfill their home ownership goals. She continues to volunteer for the CDHFH.

“I’ve always worked to help other people and given myself trying to do good for the community,” she said. “To be able to have the opportunity and obtain a home of my own and actually be able to be a part of building other homes and being a help to other people in the community is such a blessing.

“I’ve always been the type of person that you work for what you get and being able to be a part of building a home and building other homes I’ve really felt so blessed that I am given the opportunity to become a homeowner. This is just so life-changing.”

Last year, Habitat homeowners paid around $46,500 in property taxes to Kent County and local municipalities and also paid $146,346 in mortgage payments which further supports the CDHFH program.

“The smiles that I get to see on the kids’ faces and the families’ faces is the biggest reward that we could possibly have as a part of this organization,” said Katrina Sullivan, a member of Central Delaware Habitat’s Board of Directors.

Looking to the future

Mr. Simpson has big — but more attainable — goals again for this year.

He hopes the CDHFH can finish 10 new homes this year. It’s off to a good start considering that it already has constructed two new homes since January.

The organization’s website said it has these locations available in downtown Dover for new construction in 2019: 50 and 54 S. Governor’s Avenue and 15, 22 and 26 North New Street.

Mr. Simpson said the biggest news his organization has this year is that will be moving its’ ReStore after buying the old Johnny Janosik furniture store at 2230 South Dupont Highway. It plans to move into the new location by June 1.

“We’re looking forward in 2019 to move our ReStore and our affiliate operations,” he said. We will pay less per month in owning that property than we pay for a lease in our current location. The new store will have 23,000-square-feet of space compared to our current 10,000 and change.

“It’s twice as big and the visibility’s 10 times better than what we have now. We have great plans for that building.”

He noted that the CDHFH is always looking for new volunteers to add to its’ force.

“There are many ways that a person can get involved in Central Delaware Habitat’s mission,” Mr. Simpson said, “through donations and charitable giving, volunteerism, coming out with us on the job sites and actually learning to swing a hammer and help us put the houses together with what we’re building in central Dover and some of the other small areas outside of Dover – Milford, Smyrna and Harrington are some of the other places where we’re currently building.”

He said that volunteering is a good way to give back and to find some personal fulfillment. He added that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

“This opportunity to have served in the capacity as the executive director for Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity has been the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my life,” said Mr. Simpson.

“It is a nice feeling to get up in the beginning of the day and know that at the end of it, regardless of how tough it was and how tired I am, that it made a difference.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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