Mooresville attorney takes Habitat service from office to build site

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A group of volunteers huddled around a trailer full of tools and listened to a man standing in the back as he explained safety guidelines and details about the day’s construction project. At a glance, it was the normal setting of a weekend build day with Habitat for Humanity, but closer up, one could see that there was something a little bit different about the project.

As the volunteers began to disperse, they rolled up the sleeves of bright orange t-shirts, the backs of which read “Thomas, Godley and Grimes.” As they hammered their first nail, a man with a video camera circled around them, and as they took turns grabbing tools from the trailer, they were greeted by Ben Thomas, a Mooresville attorney who has been volunteering with Habitat for almost 30 years.

“Owning a home is part of the American Dream, and it provides stability to a family like nothing else does. It gives families roots, and most of all, it gives them a future.” –Ben Thomas

Fitting comfortably into the familiar setting, Thomas grabbed his own tools and joked with the site supervisor before starting work alongside the rest of the volunteers.

Thomas has been involved with Our Towns Habitat since its foundation, and his law firm is sponsoring its first Habitat home this summer.

He moved to North Carolina in 1989 to establish his practice after finishing law school at Louisiana State University. The following year, he ended up at a meeting with a group from St. Therese Catholic Church that wanted to start a local Habitat affiliate in Mooresville.

“I really don’t remember how I ended up at that meeting,” Thomas said. “I knew a little bit about Habitat, but basically no more than the average person.”

The Mooresville affiliate built its first house on McLelland Avenue, and continued building for a few years before finally merging with the Davidson affiliate to form what is now Our Towns Habitat for Humanity.

“I’ve always stayed involved and have been fortunate enough to do some of the closings for the homes,” Thomas said. “Habitat has been very good to me; I actually met my wife through this organization.”

At another Habitat meeting – this time in 1993 – Thomas walked in to a room full of regulars and noticed someone new. Her name was Angela. He asked her to dinner after the next meeting and she said yes. Twenty years later, she admitted that she had already eaten that night.

The two now have a daughter and a son, who both attend LSU.

“Since my wife and I met, Habitat has been a huge part of our lives,” Thomas said. “We worked on a house for our 20th anniversary, and we always dreamed about having the ability to sponsor a Habitat home as a family.”

With the help of his law partners and Habitat, that dream is becoming a reality this summer, as the Thomas Godley & Grimes nears completion at the end of August. Not only did Thomas find a way to fund the project, but he is also dedicated to providing enough volunteers for the Saturday builds.

One Saturday, Our Towns even had to redirect a few volunteers to surrounding build sites because so many showed up at the Thomas, Godley & Grimes home.

“We get a lot of our business from lenders and realtors,” Godley explained, “so we’re going to them with this opportunity to do a team-building, volunteer day.  Everyone that we have talked to has been all for it.”

The firm also gives out special t-shirts at the site and puts together a promotional video after every build day that each of the participating companies can use.

“It’s a situation where everyone wins, and it has kind of turned into a marketing model for us,” Thomas said, “We love volunteering here and we’re excited about the possibility of making this a model that other businesses can use to help generate more funds and volunteers for Habitat.”

Though Thomas has a long history with Our Towns, he usually contributes his time by doing pro-bono closings for the homes, so he is valuing the opportunity to be on the build site almost every Saturday this summer.

The sponsored home provides a path out of poverty housing for Elena, Luis and their four children, who Thomas has met on multiple occasions at the site.

“When you’re on the site, you see that you’re not giving anybody anything,” Thomas said. “They’re earning it and they put so much time and energy into it. Watching Elena work is absolutely amazing. She can drive a nail faster than most of us, and she never slows down.”

Habitat operates on a partnership model, with homeowners serving 400 “sweat equity” hours while they are in the homeownership program. When their home is complete, the purchase the home with an affordable mortgage. Sweat equity hours are earned by attending homeowner education classes, volunteering in the ReStores, helping building other Habitat homes and, finally, building their own home.

Having volunteered on multiple Habitat homes, Thomas understands how powerful it is to work alongside the homeowners, and he said that his most memorable experiences revolve around the families.

“When you see those kids running around and showing you their rooms, you know it’s going to change their lives,” he said. “Owning a home is part of the American Dream, and it provides stability to a family like nothing else does. It gives families roots, and most of all, it gives them a future.”

About the Author: Hannah Bain is a rising junior at N.C. State University, where she is studying public relations, Spanish and nonprofit studies. She is serving as a development and communication intern for Our Towns Habitat, focusing on capturing the stories of new and existing Habitat homeowners.

Watch the video diaries from the Thomas, Godley & Grimes build on their YouTube channel.

Tanya’s safe, affordable Habitat home was worth the work

For some of our homeowners, getting up on the roof and conquering a fear of heights is the most challenging part of building their home.

For Tanya and her son Jordan, it was bugs they had to overcome. Neither of them are fans of crawling critters, which meant working in the crawl space was a most unwelcome task! Jordan was happy he missed that day on the build site, but the Our Towns Habitat construction team made sure there were plenty of bugs left for him when it came time to install vinyl siding.

Tanya and Jordan spent 15 years living in subsidized housing, where they encountered significant safety issues and delays in getting necessary repairs addressed. She is looking forward to living in a neighborhood where there is a sense of community and neighbors who look out for each other.

For Tanya, earning her 400 sweat equity hours was particularly challenging because of her work schedule. She works as a stylist at Sport Clips, and her days off are Sundays and Mondays, when no construction tasks are scheduled.

She is grateful that Jordan was able to help her earn the hours she needed, while also working toward his associate’s degree at Central Piedmont Community College. She says she has also learned a lot of useful skills that will help her continue to maintain her home.

All that hard work will pay off as Tanya now becomes a homeowner. She is looking forward to paying an affordable mortgage that will be less than rent on her one-bedroom apartment.

“It will be great to not throw away thousands on something that’s not mine, and be able to start building equity,” she told us.

Home for single dad Melech marks completion of a neighborhood

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Composed entirely of Habitat homes, Poole Place is a unique neighborhood that illustrates the power of partnerships between non-profits, local organizations and local government. In 2005, Our Towns Habitat for Humanity began construction on the development, its largest affordable housing community to date, and today, more than a decade later, it dedicated its final house in the 61-home neighborhood.

In order to complete the large project, Our Towns Habitat joined with the Town of Cornelius to purchase and develop the land in two phases. Phase one focused on the development of a 15-lot subdivision. That purchase included an option to buy an additional 46-lot property on Baily Road, which eventually became phase two of Poole Place.

Named after Winton Poole, the former Cornelius commissioner who was the driving force behind the project, Poole Place exemplifies Habitat for Humanity’s partnership model. Over the last 13 years, Our Towns Habitat worked with countless volunteers, organizations and government officials to build the neighborhood one house at a time. It now provides shelter for 61 families, and many of them still attend the dedications of the community’s newest homes.

The completion of the neighborhood was marked today by the dedication of the last home, for single dad Melech and his 6-year-old daughter Yahmina. Melech has spent his entire life living in apartments, so this home, sponsored by Davidson College Presbyterian Church, Wells Fargo and Mecklenburg Girl Scout Troop 2383,  will be his first.

At the subsidized apartment where he and his daughter currently reside, Melech does not feel safe and has struggled with constant maintenance issues. Recently, he bought Yahmina a toy electric car, but she doesn’t get to use it much now because Melech worries about her safety when she drives it outside of their apartment.

Now, as they prepare to move into their new home, the two will be able to enjoy a yard, a greenway and a safe community where Yahmina can enjoy being a kid in.

“I can’t wait to just open up the door, put her car out, and let her go without worrying,” Melech said.

If you would like to learn more about how you can help families like Yanelly’s, visit our volunteer and donation pages for more information.

About the Author: Hannah Bain is a rising junior at N.C. State University, where she is studying public relations, Spanish and nonprofit studies. She is serving as a development and communication intern for Our Towns Habitat, focusing on capturing the stories of new and existing Habitat homeowners.

Yanelly’s Habitat house is ‘first step’ to building a future

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Sitting in the middle of her nearly finished kitchen surrounded by her not-yet-installed cooking and washing appliances, Yanelly smiled calmly and gestured out the window.

“My kids and I come here every day,” she said. “We water the grass in the yard every afternoon and it’s really beautiful now.”

Dressed in a soft, flowered skirt and lounging in a green folding chair — one of three that she had pulled from her car so that everyone in the room would have somewhere to sit — she was the definition of relaxed.

But her life has been anything but relaxing.

A single mother of three boys, Yanelly has lived, worked and struggled to support her family for the past 11 years in Davidson, N.C.

Before learning about Our Towns Habitat, the family experienced overcrowding and safety issues in previous homes and neighborhoods. Now, with a July 7 dedication date quickly approaching, Yanelly is looking forward to feeling settled and secure in her new home.

“I’m really excited about everything that comes with owning and living in this home,” she said. “I love that the area is so calm, and when it snows I think my sons and I will have fun sledding down the hill behind the house.”

Yanelly is enthusiastic about having the peace and stability that comes with being a homeowner, but she is also grateful to have been a part of the long hours and difficult days that went into building the home.

“It’s something where you learn about everything,” she said. “They teach you how to save money, how to start from the bottom, how to make goals for your life, and, most importantly, you learn how to build a house from the bottom to the top.”

Yanelly completed her sweat equity hours with after-school help from her sons — Jose, 18, Eric, 16, and Daniel, 13 — but during the process, she had to hurdle another challenge when Eric began having seizures. Later that year, doctors found several benign tumors in his brain and diagnosed him with epilepsy.

Despite working full-time and adjusting to her son’s new diagnosis, Yanelly completed her 400 sweat equity hours—it was “difficult but not impossible” she said—before construction of her home began early this year.

On site during the first day of construction, Yanelly said that she couldn’t control her tears. “It was a feeling of happiness and of overwhelming emotion as the walls went up,” she explained. “Each day, you see the volunteers that are working here, and each nail that they put in the house is full of love.”

Like Yanelly, her sons are eager to move into their first home. Her oldest son, Jose, will graduate high school next year, and hopes to go to college to study computers.

“I’m going to help him,” Yanelly said determinedly, “and with this house I can help him more because now we are paying so much less.”

With her sweat equity hours complete and the date of her dedication getting closer, Yanelly is putting herself to work once again.

“I’m thinking of what we’re going to be doing, about how many people are going to show up and about what they’re going to have to eat.” A baker in her free time, she plans to have a spread of desserts ranging from tiramisu to tres leches cake for all to enjoy on her dedication day.

“I can’t wait for that day,” Yanelly said. “I’ve been waiting for it for a long time, and it’s going to be beautiful because when you have a house it starts to shape your future. It’s the first step in building more for your life and your family.”

Yanelly’s home was funded by Davidson United Methodist Church, with church members providing the volunteer support to build the home. Watch our blog for more about Our Towns Habitat’s partnership with DUMC.

If you would like to learn more about how you can help families like Yanelly’s, visit our volunteer and donation pages for more information.

About the Author: Hannah Bain is a rising junior at N.C. State University, where she is studying public relations, Spanish and nonprofit studies. She is serving as a development and communication intern for Our Towns Habitat, focusing on capturing the stories of new and existing Habitat homeowners.