In the spring of 1983, eight people from Burlington traveled to Americus, Georgia to work on a Habitat for Humanity construction site. They returned home convinced that what they learned could help ease the dearth of affordable housing in the Burlington area.
While they were away, a second group met to discuss whether and how well the Habitat model might fit in Vermont. In May 1984, the two groups met collectively to form Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of the international organization.
One of the founders, Bill Cleary says he remembers the early meetings seemingly “full of despair . . . like climbing a rope, so painful and hard it was.”
The Habitat members connected with Martin Copenhaver, a Congregational minister who had taken groups of young people to work on projects around the country, and with his help, “everything took off in Chittenden County,” according to Mary Lou Crooks.
Green Mountain Habitat organized itself in committees to collect funds, find volunteers, and develop a process for family selection. As a result, the first house in Burlington’s new north end was dedicated in November 1986, a year and a half after the affiliate formed.
For a number of years, Green Mountain Habitat remained a totally volunteer organization. Ruth and Charlie Magill were actively involved at this point, he in the construction end, she in recruiting and scheduling volunteers. Ruth said, “Most people don’t realize all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into building a house – it’s not just hammer and nails.”
Therefore, in 2001 Dave Mullin was hired as a paid executive director so that volunteer board members could concentrate on the business of finding land, supervising volunteers, and constructing homes.
Bruce Venner entered the picture with the first Habitat house. Owning his own construction business, he knew the trade and said that proper supervision of construction was the group’s greatest challenge. “My philosophy,” according to Venner, “is that I train people to put me out of work.”
He worked closely with ReSource’s (formerly Recycle North) YouthBuild, forming relationships with many of the young members. A mother of a youth builder told him that the experience was excellent for her son. “Having slogged through some trying conditions,” she came away feeling very proud of him.
The process for finding volunteers has developed over the years as well. Dot Slack took over from Ruth Magill in 2001 and remembers how difficult it was to get a list of 30 volunteers together. Now, groups come from businesses, churches, even cadres of retired “codgers” who travel the country working on Habitat projects. Special “Women Build” initiatives have become a regular feature of Green Mountain Habitat’s construction.
On the family side of the coin, the support team sets up classes in financing, budgeting and home mortgage, and helps the partners meet their obligations for investing the required hours of “sweat equity.” Holly Jones lives in a Habitat house and says building it “was a fabulous experience, from the Saturday we started to the end when we moved in. I got to know all the volunteers as friends. They all signed the beams – even Governor Douglas, even the kids from Burlington Tech who helped cut them.”
Energy efficiency at affordable prices has become a priority for Green Mountain Habitat houses. The 2010 project for three homes in Charlotte has produced award winning passive solar designs that maintain even temperatures within the buildings in winter and summer. The homes combine proper positioning of the foundation, air circulation, solar heat absorption, insulation, and multiple thermal breaks in the infrastructure. Home monitoring systems send up-to-date information to the homeowners who maintain efficiency at a moderate cost. These homes have become models for future Habitat housing here and elsewhere.
Former GMHFH board member and president, John Owen, describes well what working with Habitat over the years means most to him. He says, “It’s simply the people. It’s a real community. I went to the last annual meeting, and there were many new faces. It was a wonderful feeling to be part of that.”
New faces. New houses. Habitat keeps on growing.