Dr. Susan Miller, far left, and Dr. Laura Shepardson, in cap, watch Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity volunteer Joe Fenske place slats of wood under a ceiling beam at the nonprofit’s Eastlake home construction site on Sept. 23. Volunteer Rick O’Donnell is at right. Chad Felton — The News-Herald
Last December, Ros R., who requested her last name not be printed, experienced the best Christmas of her life thanks to the “ultimate” gift she received — a new home.
“We moved in the week of Christmas,” she said. “It was, and still is, awesome. The snow even waited until we got in. My daughter and my grandbaby moved in with me so it was really sweet, really special. Now, the grass has grown, we have flowers and it’s so peaceful. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It’s absolutely a beautiful blessing. I am so grateful.”
The Eastlake resident was the recipient of a new home made possible by Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity, and various team build community companies and organizations. Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry dedicated to building and rehabilitating simple, decent and affordable homes in partnership with homebuyers in need in Lake and Geauga Counties.
“The volunteers and everyone involved, they embrace everything,” Ros said. “They work tirelessly. It’s excellent, absolutely excellent. Everything is great. I have no complaints. They kept telling me that I deserved it. It’s amazing that all these people come out. Nothing is for their gain, they just want to help and be a part of it. That’s the part that’s really great, total strangers with this incredible wish to help.”
Ros is one of 90 recipients since 1986 chosen to become new homeowners through the organization, said Denise Sanzo, marketing and digital communications manager for Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity.
“We started as Geauga, applied for and assumed Lake County in 2014 because there is a huge need out here. This (current construction) is a team build, and we have a series of them through the building process. And we get a lot of help. It could be a corporation, it could be a church. Saint John Vianney Parish (in Mentor) is here with us today, Lowe’s was here yesterday and this group of Cleveland Clinic doctors is here today.
“What this does is take off labor costs for us,” she said. “We run 80 to 90 percent volunteer built, otherwise these houses wouldn’t be affordable. There are some things we contract out because we have to have codes on certain things, and we build energy-rated houses, so there are certain professionals that have to be hired, but we keep a very narrow window on that.
“And that’s how it keeps going,” Sanzo added, “that’s how the funding goes, too, because their mortgages help us go to the next project. And we get other funding resources as well but it’s all part of the process. We try to do two to three a year; it depends on how much help we receive. Funding comes from Lake-Geauga, but it stays there, we’re bound by the counties. It doesn’t leave the county.”
The current home construction, also in Eastlake, is slated to be completed by November for new homeowner, Noelle, whose last name is withheld at the organization’s request, and her family.
“We hope to dedicate the home by Thanksgiving,” Sanzo said, noting that the community is invited to the celebration. “As far as the property, it comes from varying sources. We can get it from the (Lake County) Land Bank, we can get it from an outright donation or we can purchase it at a much lowered cost. We wheel and deal because this is all about the family. In the end this house has to be affordable. Without the family, this stops. We might as well go home.”
Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity’s mission is one of empowerment and independence, with nothing at all “given away,” despite consistent misinformation to the contrary.
“We try to find recipients that fit a certain salary range,” said Betty Kimbrew, vice president the Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity Board of Directors. “The cost may be less because of volunteer labor but this is not a free ride. They pay (their) mortgage, utilities, taxes and other expenses. Everything is earned. There are a lot of aspects — it’s not simply just getting a house.
“The first thing we try to do is get them in a community where their kids are going to school right now. The children lead the way. That doesn’t always happen, but for the most part, we try to find property in the community where they’re living now.”
Each recipient receives financial and home maintenance training classes through the organization. The selected homeowners also perform 400 hours of “sweat equity” during the project, and are required to complete 100 prior to a property being sought.
“After that, we require 200 hours from them alone,” said Sanzo. “The last 100 hours, their family members are allowed to help them. This transforms the house into a home. The classes help them manage and budget, and we don’t abandon them, we stay with them for a year afterward. We touch base. There is no ‘free ride.’ This is a hand up, not a handout.”
Kathleen Munch, Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity director of development, said the series of team builds effectively delivers the message of Habitat.
“When we’re out as a team, we’re communicating our mission and sharing our work together with our volunteers. These are the days that are treasured because with the Cleveland Clinic here really experiencing hands-on building, they truly understand our mission and where their dollars make the impact of the good work we are all doing.”
As hammers pounded and saws buzzed, Dr. Susan Miller and Dr. Laura Shepardson both agreed the work being performed was meaningful.
“It feels great, and that’s the whole reason why we’re doing this,” said Miller. “This is the experience, the feeling I wanted to get. I wanted to feel like I was helping somebody, we all did. And doing it with my colleagues and my friends is even better, it makes it an even more rewarding experience, and with my daughter here as well.
“What’s really nice is you get to meet the family that’s going to be living in the house. I think that’s extra special. Knowing that it’s a single mom taking care of her family, I think that’s great.”
Shepardson said she was excited to help create the home for Noelle, and didn’t realize what specific tasks had to be undertaken.
“We didn’t know what stage the house was going to be in when we arrived, so this is just as much an educational experience for us as it is a volunteer experience. All of this is real dedication.”
Ros, who lives just two blocks from the soon-to-be-finished home, knows Lake-Geauga Habitat for Humanity not only builds homes, but also changes lives.
“When people think everyone is all for out for self, this reminds you that they’re not,” she said. “This shows otherwise. These are all beautiful people. Through the process you become friends. You come in as strangers, but you build a bond, real relationships.
“I’ve met Noelle and she’s like me when right before I moved in, a ball of nerves, because she also realizes good things do happen for others. I look forward to seeing her move in when it’s all done.”