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Habitat for Humanity-Powhatan celebrates two decades of service

POWHATAN – Habitat for Humanity-Powhatan is celebrating two decades of helping Powhatan residents get into a new home or safely remain in in one they already own. The nonprofit will mark its 20th anniversary this weekend with two days of activities – one public, one private – meant to both commemorate all that Habitat has accomplished through the years and look to the future and the good work yet to be done. Habitat for Humanity has been actively engaged in performing hundreds of critical home repairs throughout the county since 2010, when the program started, and built 14 homes since 2001 with the 15th house set to be finished and dedicated next week, said Susan Winiecki, executive director of the local nonprofit since July 2020. By offering home stability, the nonprofit has sought to empower individuals and families. “Through the dozens of critical home repairs Habitat-Powhatan will do this year, we’ll help residents improve their safety and health, allowing them to remain independent longer,” she said. “By building houses and offering mortgages that do not eat up more than 30 percent of monthly income, families can establish a solid financial footing, begin saving and then planning for their own or their children’s futures.” Habitat is asking the public to come out to the Habitat ReStore on Saturday, June 5 to commemorate this milestone at the 20th anniversary Sale-A-Bration. The event will be held from 9.a.m to 2 p.m. at the store at 1922 Urbine Road. The celebration will include games for adults and children, a raffle, and tons of new merchandise for sale. All proceeds benefit Habitat’s mission.

The nonprofit will round out the weekend with a private event on Sunday, June 6 where it will recognize its founders, show appreciation for 2020-2021 volunteers, donors and sponsors, and share Habitat’s plans for the future. “Building awareness about the need for a variety of housing options across generations, from those in their 20s to older residents who are over-housed and cost-burdened, is part of our roadmap for the next two to three years,” Winiecki said. “Our roadmap includes goals of acquiring a 40-acre or more property for a possible conservation subdivision where we could focus our efforts for a few years; increasing ReStore revenue by expanding our merchandise network; and expanding our ever-burgeoning critical repair program to include a weekend team of volunteers, coached by a Habitat repair manager. But we’d also gratefully accept any 2-acre lot that someone may have in his or her back pocket!” A legacy of caring Habitat has had a rich history in Powhatan, with countless numbers of people pitching in through the years by helping with builds, repairs, fundraising, donations, event planning, serving as board members, working in the Habitat ReStore, and more. The direct impact of all of that hard work and dedication can be found in the stories of homeowners whose lives were changed by the help they received from Habitat, Winiecki said.

The story of Habitat for Humanity-Powhatan starts a little over two decades ago. Jim Washburn and Robert Butler, two Powhatan residents, attended a Lions Club meeting out of the county and heard about a Habitat chapter that had been started there. Washburn said he brought the topic up with then-county administrator Steve Owen, who was very supportive of Powhatan having is own chapter. At the time, Owen told him that Robert “Bob” Partlow, rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, was looking for an opportunity for his congregation to become involved in the community. A meeting was held to gauge general interest in helping with the new nonprofit, and from there an official board of directors was formed. The nonprofit officially received its certificate of incorporation on Jan. 24, 2001, and in it was a list of the 15 people who made up the first board: Mary Halvorsen, Patsy Goodwyn, Sister Emma K. Flaherty, Sal Paciello, Wanda Long, Rusty Gates, Willis Funn, Jim Washburn, Thomas Tokarz, Bob Partlow, Jim Doyle, Pete Peterson, Diane Nash, Terry Paquette, and Jim Wheeler. As far as Washburn remembers, the new nonprofit was generally well received in Powhatan. It was something that was needed in the county and it filled a void, he said. “There was more cooperation and good fellowship than any organization I think I have been a part of. They just came together. People came to work and they came to be social as well, and between the two they were very successful,” he said.

Washburn recalled the first two houses, which were built on Old Buckingham Road on two lots the nonprofit bought from a woman whose husband received them to pay a debt. The early years were largely possible because of volunteers from several local churches as well as involvement from local civic organizations, said Don Whitley, Habitat’s first executive director. Part of the reason it was so successful in Powhatan was that residents liked that they were “offering a hand up, not a hand out” since Habitat families still take on a mortgage and commit to sweat equity as part of being chosen, he added. But while local residents were more than willing to give their time and money, the biggest hurdle facing Habitat was finding buildable, affordable lots in Powhatan County. After a few years in operation, the topic of Habitat’s growth and impact started coming up in meetings. The nonprofit had built the first three houses fairly quickly in 2002, 2003, and 2004, but boomingstill trying land prices had slowed progress considerably. The board members decided they wanted to do more. Whitley’s work in the information technologies field was seasonable, so he was tapped to become the first part-time executive director in 2007 and help the nonprofit move forward. In the roughly two years Whitley was in the position, he said his greatest contribution was buying several plots of land that would be used to build homes long after he stepped away.

Whitley found out about an auction taking place in the county of foreclosed properties. He was able to buy several properties at that auction and believes he was so successful because people knew why he was there. “I do know that at that auction there was somebody bidding on one of those lots at least and somebody standing close to him sort of punched him in the ribs and said, ‘You are bidding against Habitat here.’ Then he quit bidding,” Whitley said with a laugh. Renewed energy When Terry Paquette took over as part-time executive director in January 2009, he had already been involved in building the first three Habitat houses. There had been a lapse in builds because of lack of land, but that was rectified with the properties Whitley purchased at auction. Habitat was busy in the years that followed. House No. 4, which was started under Whitley, was finished in 2009. From there, Habitat built one house a year until 2014, when two houses were constructed. During Paquette’s tenure as executive director from 2009 to 2016, he said Habitat completed nine homes. Building a home very year felt great, but it wasn’t enough for Paquette. Powhatan County was special because the majority of homes in the county were owned, not rented. But many of those homes were owned by elderly people who could not physically keep up with repairs or afford to pay someone to fix problems.

“It is expensive to keep up a house. We realized we wanted to touch more families, and there was really a need. These older folks with houses just didn’t have the income to put on a new roof or whatever they needed to do,” he said. So in 2010, Habitat started a new venture for the local nonprofit called the critical repair program. The first repair involved crawling under a home and shoring up the floor. The program represented somewhat of a shift for the local nonprofit since repair recipients are not asked to repay Habitat for the labor or materials. But just as there was a need to start the Habitat chapter when the founders noticed the need in the county, Paquette saw the repair program as evolving to fill another need. And he doesn’t regret it. Paquette said he felt just as proud of the 70 critical repairs Habitat completed while he was executive director as he is of the nine new homes they built. More changes Habitat has continued to evolve through the years. Tim Bowring became executive director in July 2016 and served in the position until May 2018. During that time, he completely changed how the nonprofit financed home builds to make it more sustainable. Habitat began using a loan program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that serves low- to moderate-income families in rural areas and has very similar qualifications to Habitat.

Until that time, Habitat would build a house on land it had bought or that had been donated and the nonprofit controlled the deed. Habitat would own the mortgage and the resident would slowly pay it off over time. With the USDA loan program, a family that already has been prescreened applies to that organization for funds to buy land from Habitat, purchase a house or pay contractors for their work. In this scenario, Habitat becomes the contractor and the USDA holds the mortgage, offering affordable rates and mortgages. This shift significantly changed the way Habitat’s cash flow operated. Habitat also began work on another huge milestone for the nonprofit – the opening of a ReStore in Powhatan that would help fund the nonprofit. Work began under Bowring’s leadership to renovate the old Huguenot Fire Volunteer Fire Station on Urbine Road to be used for this purpose. The new store officially opened a few weeks after Roseleen “Spud” Rick took the helm on June 1, 2018, as Habitat’s first full-time executive director. Having the store raised the nonprofit’s profile in the community, and a designated source of income was a great step forward. Rick, who resigned from the Habitat board to take the job, said she wanted to renew focus on home building and getting more of the community involved with Habitat again.

“The enthusiasm for Habitat had waned a bit in the previous years. I think having a full-time director allowed Habitat to become more involved on a community level,” she said. Another big push in the two years she worked there was doubling down on the critical repair program, because it was so important to helping vulnerable Powhatan residents in dire situations. “I think that critical repair is important because it allows people to stay in their homes and it makes that housing safer and more sanitary. That is one of the things we are interested in doing,” she said. Credit where it is due In looking forward to the 20th anniversary, Winiecki said she wanted to try to encapsulate Habitat’s story, “because it has been an amazing one.” The nonprofit created a video that tries to capture some of the story from those impacted by it through the years. The video will be released next week on Habitat’s website, It is a story of new generations of homeowners who could provide stability to their families. “The impact that the nonprofit has speaks volumes when you go back and talk to a family who has been in their home for many years. You see the impact it has on their children’s lives as far as giving them stability, providing a yard for memories over the years,” she said.

Habitat’s story is also about the countless volunteers who gave up their weekends or other days to hammer nails, build walls, repair roofs, replace rotting floors, paint rooms, serve food, fetch and carry, pick up donations for the store, stock the shelves, run the cash register, and do whatever else was necessary to help those in need, she said. It is a story of numerous donors through the years who supported Habitat as it grew and expanded its scope. For more information, contact 804-594-7009.

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