BY JEN OLENICZAK BROWN
Have you ever wanted and dreamed of something so much but it seemed just out of reach? Maybe you’ve gotten so incredibly close to achieving it, only for it to fall apart in the last moments.
This happened to Gena Fisher and her dream of homeownership – only she got it, thanks to Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County.
From dreaming to living in rented homes too small for her family to almost completing a homeownership program at another agency – and only disqualified because of a modest raise at her job at the YMCA, Gena thought she was out of options. She looked into a traditional mortgage – another dead end, as she found the homes that she could afford weren’t safe.
Cue Habitat for Humanity.
While Gena was discouraged, she still connected with Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County. Once approved for the homeownership program, she enjoyed putting in sweat equity hours on a new home on Thurmond Street for another family– the home was Habitat’s 35th Anniversary House, right next door to the very first home that the affiliate built after founding in 1985. The home would actually become hers.
After a series of unusual circumstances, Gena learned in early August that this home she has been working on would be enough space, bedrooms, and bathrooms for her and her three children. “Without [Habitat], I wouldn’t have been able to own a home. I plan to continue giving back to Habitat in any way I can.”
Imagine this dream being fulfilled, over and over, for 35 years – and now, get ready to join in the celebration that might look a little different than other celebrations, but still captures the spirit of community development.
The Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County Blueprint Tour, “35 Years of Community Development,” took supporters on a guided tour of the Habitat campus, a historic neighborhood, and through Habitat’s vast and prolific history that serves and elevates everyone, from kids to adults.
“We’re educating families,” said George Redd, Chief Program Officer, “That can be financial literacy, life skills, and homeownership. A lot of times it’s about breaking the cycle of generational poverty and creating generational wealth through homeownership.”
George grew up not too far from campus, and his return home to do what he loved shows the depth and breadth of the Habitat reach. “Communities we build in often have distressed homes and haven’t had a new home in almost 50 years. A new build not only uplifts the community, but it also activates positive change.”
This uplifting is a key part of the Neighborhood Revitalization approach that Habitat focuses its work around: a holistic approach that works alongside residents, assisting them in realizing their vision for a revitalized community. This includes the traditional work of building houses for low-income families – and first-time homeowners – and also remodeling existing houses to new housing standards, assisting owner-occupants in repairs to their own homes, helping seniors age in place, and assisting on other community projects.
The tour, now available as a self-guided or virtual tour, takes you through the North Cherry Street Historic District, a Nationally Registered Historic District, and by one of these community projects – the Kimberley Park Community Garden. Even if you haven’t been, you might have heard of this garden from the former First Lady Michelle Obama’s book, “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.” The garden at Kimberley Park is one of several mentioned “Gardens of Service.”
Habitat Forsyth has worked in the North Cherry Street Historic District since 2008 and relocated the campus to the community in 2015. The campus is vast and multipurpose. It houses The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust Family Education Center, hosting classes, training, and community meetings; Dan Pearson Construction Technology Center, a construction operations center; Bob Doty Community Workshop, a community woodworking shop; the Smith-Phillips homeroom, a mock-up of a Habitat home where home maintenance and repair classes are taught; and finally, the Jimmy Johnson Volunteer Lodge, a place where college and high school students from around the country can stay while volunteering with Habitat and other organizations in Forsyth County.
“Our education program is customized,” said George, “We’re reaching the individuals and families where they are. We’re also serving the whole family – these families are so excited they are purchasing a home, and we’re making sure these kids don’t need a Habitat home. We want to give them the skills that are needed to break the generational cycle.”
This whole-family approach taps the mission of “building homes, community, and hope.” The community connection is clear and becomes exponential when you start tapping into the partner classes with Forsyth Tech, training students in both carpentry and plumbing, and the partnership with the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools Career Center. Construction Technology Students build a house on the Career Center campus and then Habitat moves the home to its lot in the neighborhood – one is currently under construction on Burton Street!
The celebratory tour also contains nods to the folks that help Habitat in their mission like Smith Phillips Lumber Company and Plyler Supply Company. The phrase “it takes a village” doesn’t begin to describe the connection Habitat has to the community – one that not everyone is aware of.
“We have a lot to offer on campus. A computer lab, classes, and homeowner classes that are open to the community, and we wish that people would take advantage of,” said George. “One example: we have a two day course where people spend time talking with the different city departments to learn about the government.” Habitat learns from families as well. “We’ve learned where the different food banks were when there are certain days for certain discounts – all things we take for granted.” The more we all connect with our community, the more the whole community benefits.
If you still aren’t convinced to celebrate 35 incredible years – the campus itself houses over 20 blue birdhouses, a chimney swift tower, garden beds, and a gazebo with handcrafted benches for outdoor meetings – all built and donated as part of three local Eagle Scout projects. Add in the contribution for Forsyth Audubon Society: the campus is a habitat in itself for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife thanks to the native plant landscaping throughout the property.
Everyone deserves a safe and healthy place to call home. “We have provided homeownership opportunities and repairs to more than 500 families over 35 years
but there is still much work to be done when it comes to affordable housing in in our area,” said Mike Campbell, Habitat Forsyth CEO. In a recent study, Mayor Allen Joines predicted that over 15,000 affordable housing units will be needed in the near future, just in Winston-Salem. “While Habitat Forsyth cannot solve this problem alone, we are in the unique position to help address affordable housing challenges and combat the shortage,” said Mike. “Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County is so appreciative to our supporters and the community without whom, non of this would be possible.”
Join Habitat on this mission, and celebrate the journey, sending good wishes to the future. To learn more about how you can support Habitat’s work in the community, contact Lauren Davis, Chief Development Officer, at 336-306-8418. Lauren.firstname.lastname@example.org
To take the self-guided or virtual Blueprint Community Tour, click here: https://www.habitatforsyth.org/bp_tour/