Rebuilding to build once again | Valley Life

Like the Friday morning sunlight pouring through a window beside their meeting table, Jim Edwards and Chuck Norman see brighter days ahead for Wabash Valley Habitat for Humanity.

Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic dimmed the local nonprofit organization’s long-running outreach.

“It was like a perfect storm in the devastation of the program here,” Norman said as he and Edwards talked inside Habitat’s Terre Haute headquarters on Tippecanoe Street. “There’s been a squeeze and reductions of volunteers on volunteer boards across the country.”

The local Habitat chapter had key vacancies on its staff and volunteer positions, from its board of directors to worksite crews. Its mission — building houses that turn low-income residents largely into sustainable homeowners — had been idled through the pandemic. Habitat had built 72 homes in Terre Haute and surrounding communities since 1989.

Norman and his late wife, Barbara, had volunteered with Habitat eight years ago and enjoyed the experience. When Barbara died of progressive dementia last January, Norman’s grown daughters reminded him of how rewarding those volunteer days were for her. Their reminder inspired Norman. The 80-year-old retired Indiana State University sociology professor decided to volunteer as a Habitat board member.

“This gave me the nudge I needed,” said Norman, now the board’s president. “Getting reconnected with Habitat was easy — joining a local team of volunteers in an organization with a national and international reputation for providing decent housing. What could be better than that?”

Then Norman recruited Edwards, first as a volunteer board member but later as Habitat’s new executive director. Annette Houchin, who’d served in that role for 13 years, left the Wabash Valley chapter in 2019 to lead another Habitat affiliate near Seattle.

The 66-year-old Edwards understood the challenges of nonprofit leadership. He’d been serving as program director of Ryves Youth Center for the past 40 and wasn’t looking to leave the Catholic Charities latch-key program for disadvantaged kids, just 10 blocks from Habitat’s base of operations.

“I wasn’t looking for a job,” Edwards said. “Heck, I’d been at Ryves forever, and I loved it and loved the kids there.”

But as he and Norman talked about hopes to reinvigorate Habitat, “the more I heard that little voice, that I hadn’t heard in years, to step up and do what I could,” Edwards recalled.

Last month, Edwards retired from Ryves after four decades and stepped into Wabash Valley Habitat for Humanity’s executive director position. “Jim is the real deal,” Norman said, citing Edwards’ roots in the north-side neighborhood, where the organization is based. Twenty-two of the 72 houses built by Habitat are located on Chase, Tippecanoe and Elm streets in that neighborhood.

Edwards lived in the neighborhood as a kid. Born in Logansport, he and his family moved to Terre Haute, then Indianapolis, Detroit, Kokomo and Tampa, before returning to Terre Haute at age 10. He’s been here ever since, and he and his wife plan to stay.

Those roots and his Ryves Center background are “a big plus” for Edwards with Habitat, Norman said. Residents and businesses in the neighborhood know Edwards. “He’s got that trust,” Norman said.

Edwards is confident whoever succeeds him at Ryves “will have a lot of support and continue the good work they do.”

Aiming to build again, soon

Like Ryves, Habitat’s work requires volunteers for a variety of tasks — stocking and cleaning gently used housewares at the ReStore outlet on Wabash Avenue, serving on the committee to select families for houses, data entry, social media updates and, of course, helping with the construction of homes on the work sites.

Of the latter, Edwards said, “We need those volunteers because very soon we’re going to be building another house.” As the pandemic has subsided, inquiries from families interested in applying for houses have increased. Norman hopes to start taking applications for Habitat’s next three homes by July 1.

All volunteers receive guidance. “We’ve got experienced people, like the ‘Grumpies,’ that will take people under their wings,” Edwards said.

Oh, the Grumpies. They’re a corps of retirees who volunteer their time and labor to construct Habitat homes. In actuality, the Grumpies aren’t actually grumpy, considering their willingness to prepare new volunteers through instruction, such as “Nail Pounding 101,” as one long-time Grumpy described for the Tribune-Star.

Getting people of any age to volunteer is crucial for local chapters, said Gina Leckron, state director of Habitat for Humanity of Indiana. The pandemic depleted those ranks, but numbers lately have improved throughout the state.

“We are just sort of starting to look a little more normal this summer,” Leckron said last week. “We had a massive loss of volunteers through the pandemic.”

Those lost volunteers included seniors, the age group most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 complications. Some Habitat affiliates in Indiana hired paid labor to complete houses, Leckron said, stressing their budgets. “So those cost over-runs have really been tough on our ministry around the state,” she added. Terre Haute wasn’t among those, and Leckron’s excited about the Wabash Valley affiliate’s revival efforts.

Statewide, the pandemic years looked a lot different for Habitat in Indiana. “Pre-pandemic, we were mobilizing about 50,000 volunteers throughout the state,” Leckron explained. The 50 local Habitat affiliates serving 75 Hoosier counties built a combined 265 houses in a year.

New ways to serve

A new avenue to attract volunteers has opened through the pandemic, though. Volunteers of young generations are serving remotely from home, Leckron said. Some track numbers of Habitat homeowners’ hours of “sweat-equity” assisting at the construction sites or in office work, or track volunteers’ hours. Others do marketing and publicity work for the organization. Tech-oriented volunteers photograph and video construction-site progress with drones.

“I think it really has helped to envision those things,” Leckron said, “but we’re still going to need a physical work force and have those hammer swingers on the work site.”

They’re all serving low-income families that meet three primary criteria to be accepted for a Habitat home. Selected families earn between 30% and 60% of the community’s median household income; have an income that can repay the interest-free mortgage; and be willing to spend 200 to 500 hours with Habitat volunteers and staff in building the home, or serving in other capacities.

“Even though we write some of the riskest home loans in the business, we have less than a 2% foreclosure rate,” Leckron said.

Habitat prepares those families for home ownership, offering instruction on making mortgage payments, house repairs, insurance, taxes and logistics like city trash pickups. It’s a first-time experience for most.

Back on Tippecanoe Street, Edwards and Norman recounted the paths to their alignment with Habitat. Edwards was a member of ISU’s campus police force and a part-time student, when he took one of Norman’s sociology classes. Norman came to Terre Haute from Kansas City in 1968 to join the ISU faculty at age 26, and still lives on the north end, where his daughters attended the old Chauncey Rose Middle School.

Today, both men consider Terre Haute and the neighborhood surrounding Habitat’s base to be their home. They’ve seen support for the local Habitat’s renewal come from a variety of businesses, individuals, community organizations and city officials.

“It takes a village, like the African proverb,” ​​Norman said. “We’re going at it like that.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]

More on Habitat for Humanity

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