by Traci DeGroat, President/CEO
This will be one of my last blog posts, as I have resigned from Habitat for Humanity Prince William County after nearly twenty years as its executive director.
When I started working for Habitat in 2002, the organization was in a state of transition. Volunteers, led by Ulysses “Xerk” White, a former City of Manassas Councilman, had created the organization in 1994 and worked over the next seven years to build four houses in partnership with low-income families. The homes were in the Dumfries and the City of Manassas. Besides Mr. White, the first Board members included: Jim Cockrell, Lindsey Altman, James Slack, Dr. Chalmers Archer, Jr.; Dr. Rene Harris; Anthony Thomas, Mary Ward, James Fahey, Sister B.J. Cameron and Paul White.
In the seventh year, the reins were turned over to Gail Kettlewell, then the Provost at the Northern Virginia Community College, Manassas Campus. Gail and the Board hired me to work 10-15 hours a week. At the time, I owned another business. But, after a couple of years, I was working full-time at Habitat and closed my business.
Those early days were colorful! In 2002, our offices were located in a house that belonged to Trinity Episcopal Church. There were four key individuals who volunteered to each take one day to work in the one-room office we shared with a punch dial land-line telephone, one computer, a full-sized desk and a computer station. Jim Floyd (and his wife Carol for a short time), Betty Reichert, Mark Luiggi and Brendan Regan played key roles in helping to build the organization. Eventually, Brendan took a job in another City. Mark Luiggi volunteered for about 12 years. Betty and Jim both volunteered for over 17 years, coming in weekly at a minimum. A fun story, Betty’s son, John, e-mailed on my second day on the job, to make a case for his mother as a volunteer. I still have that e-mail. You can read it here.
In my first week of work at Habitat, I traveled with Gail and other Board members to a Mid-Atlantic Habitat conference. There, at lunch, I sat with a group of men from North Carolina who asked if I’d ever heard of a ReStore. They were ReStore employees and they told me that I should certainly look into starting one if at all possible.
A year or so later, a woman called the office and asked if she could donate the tools that her recently deceased husband had owned. Mark and I took our pick-up trucks and picked up the tool donation. On a sunny afternoon that coincided with the City of Manassas Railway Festival, we spread some blankets in front of the house/office and sold the tools. Not long after, the Church asked us to move because they wanted to renovate the house and convert it into housing for women who were being released from prison. Habitat decided that opening a ReStore that would share space with the office would be an excellent way to raise the rent needed for the space.
In 2004, we opened the first ReStore on the old SERVE campus, in the building that they had used as a food donation center. This was at 10043 Nokesville Road, property that was owned by and adjacent to the Brethren Church. The building itself was only about 2,200 sq. ft. and we immediately outgrew it. We had merchandise in our offices and people would wander through and look at items to buy while we worked. We had to clearly mark everything that was “not for sale” or they tried to buy the desks or chairs out from under us. We rented two sea containers and parked them in the parking lot and stored and sold merchandise from them as well. It was apparent that more space was needed.
In 2006, Habitat leased the old Manassas Hardware Store, a retail business that had been owned by the same people for 50 years. At around 7,500 sq. ft., it felt huge to us. We continued to operate our offices from within the store which always kept things lively. In 2008, we expanded again when the adjoining business, Northern Virginia Auto Supply, vacated their space. We cut a hole in the wall to join the two buildings, put in a fire door and doubled our space. That location served us well and we were there for the next 10 years or so. We eventually had to move the offices out of the building to make room for more merchandise.
In 2015, we expanded again by moving the Manassas store to its current location at 10159 Hastings Drive, a building with 38,541 sq. ft. of space and adequate parking (and space for our offices). By this time, the staff numbered 25 and nearly a thousand volunteers worked with us each year, providing 13,000 hours and more of volunteer service.
The ReStore aspect of our business provided much needed funds to grow our programs. After 20 years, we had now built 8 houses from the ground up, renovated another 9, and repaired nearly 200 homes.
Habitat International’s model has always been one based on home ownership. While that sometimes presented some difficulties in bustling and growing Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park, the projects we completed were memorable. One home in Woodbridge was built on land that was donated to us by a local Realtor, Mary Ann Ghadban. We sold the home to Christina and her two young boys. The Home Dedication was held the week before Christmas and it still brings tears and shivers to me when I think about that candle-lit celebration with Christmas wreaths on the door.
In 2007, Habitat was losing battles to purchase and re-zone property that could be used for our home construction mission. It was a problem that was occurring across the country and some affiliates were doing some innovative things to respond. The Twin Cities, Minnesota, affiliate had created a program called “A Brush With Kindness.” We learned about it in a newsletter put out by Habitat for Humanity International. In the end, our Habitat affiliate signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Twin Cities affiliate to operate an “A Brush With Kindness” program here, locally. This MOU provided us with the guidelines of how they ran their program, the application materials, etc. The Twin Cities affiliate’s program was based on painting the wood-frame homes that were common-place in Minnesota, a model that couldn’t be adapted identically, here. However, we knew that a repair model was needed so we jumped in and allowed the work to lead us.
The first home we repaired was a house in Lake Ridge. The owner was an elderly, bed-ridden woman. Her adult son was her caregiver. Their income level was well-below the poverty line. Habitat embarked on its first “Critical Home Repair,” a definition that we would adapt over the course of the next few years as we racked up more projects and learned that there were vast differences between a typical “A Brush With Kindness” project and the major structural improvements that were required for a critical home repair. Habitat painted the home, replaced doors and windows, rebuilt a fence, cleaned up the yard. It was an exciting project and wonderful to see the transformation. The neighbors were so appreciative!
Many more projects followed and eventually we were able to class our repairs as Home Preservation, Critical Home Repairs, Weatherization, Home Ownership and Community Development/Neighborhood Revitalization. In 2011, we were recognized by Habitat for Humanity International as a Neighborhood Revitalization affiliate.
Habitat International’s definition of Neighborhood Revitalization (NR) is expansive and involves community organizing as well as home ownership and home repair services. It involves partnering with other community organizations to connect with residents in the neighborhood to help them achieve their goals. We have worked for several years to find a neighborhood that was suited for this type of work. This year, Habitat really found its foundation when it partnered with CFH, Inc. at East End Mobile Home Park to provide a full-fledged neighborhood revitalization program. There are also new opportunities opening with grant funding and new programming in partnership with Dominion Energy and the City of Manassas for two additional neighborhood projects.
Why would I leave when I’m finally realizing this vision for a full-fledged neighborhood revitalization program? Being a statistic of COVID, would be my short answer. My children have grown and I no longer have family in the area. After twenty years of laboring in a job I’ve loved, I think it is time that I turn over the reins to others so that I can surround myself with family and the grandchildren whom I have seen more rarely than I prefer. I am moving to southern Virginia where my son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren reside. I’m really looking forward to this new chapter in my life. And I wish the best to this organization that I have loved for so many years.
Thank you to all of you for your support of Habitat for Humanity Prince William County. All of this work would not have been possible without you, our volunteers, our donors, our ReStore fans, our family partners, the staff that keeps things going daily, Board members and the many community partners who support our work. I wish I could name more of you personally, but it would be pages of names, there are so many whose contributions to Habitat have been far-reaching and instrumental. I will keep you all close in memory and to my heart and wish you and this organization all the best for many years to come.