Self Respect, Stability, and Green Building

An interview with former Habitat Kent Executive Director, John Kuiper

Pictured above: John on a build site when Habitat Kent was previously Habitat for Humanity of Grand Rapids; Habitat homeowners and John at a groundbreaking ceremony; John volunteering at the all-electric homes on Diamond in 2022, sporting a Habitat Kent Blitz Build shirt from 1997!

John Kuiper served as the second Executive Director of Habitat Kent from 1987 to 1999. He recently sat down with us and talked about the organization’s early days, the start of our quest for energy efficiency, and the impact housing can have on a family’s well-being.

Mark Ogland-Hand, Sr. Donor Relations Specialist, Habitat Kent: Habitat Kent began building LEED-certified homes several years after your time here, but in looking at the old pictures it is apparent that we were always concerned with building energy-efficient homes.

John: Yes, as early as 1987 we were building 2 x 6 exterior walls with continuous Dow board insulation. When I came back to Habitat Kent temporarily [as interim Executive Director in 2010], I was looking back at those old houses and thinking we should be doing a massive energy retrofit, and I found out that the only thing necessary was a little bit of air sealing and attic insulation upgrades, and maybe foundation insulation.

Mark: Because of those past efforts, our houses are great candidates for electrification. Your work back then is really standing the test of time in preparing them for the future.

John: I would tell people that depending on where Habitat families were moving from their utility bills could go from $200 a month to $30 a month.

Mark: That’s still happening. For one of our “Carbon Footprint Builds” the family came from an old drafty home and their utility bills will reflect a huge reduction. But what was it that made you think, “We’ve got to build better, more energy-efficient houses.”

John: I think that was part of the 1980’s construction move toward energy efficiency. There had been recent swings in gas prices that had priced people out of their houses. $400 gas bills. That was in place before I started and I think Dave Jacobs, [one of Habitat Kent’s original board members], was responsible for that. So that was always there.

Mark: Habitat Kent grew a lot during your time as Executive Director, what was it about Habitat that resonated with the community?

John: What was unique about Habitat was that we’re not just a housing ministry; it’s an opportunity to bring volunteers and people in need together, working side by side, learning from each other. It was a ministry to volunteers as well as homeowners. Homeowners, who, through the experience of building their house, developed a sense of self-respect and their families thrived. It wasn’t just rent verses house payments; it was about stability.

We did a project with Calvin College where students interviewed existing homeowners and we heard stories about how their kids were doing better in school. Their quality of life improved not just because of where they were, but because of what they did.

One of my favorite stories involved a family where the mother showed me the kitchen floor of their current housing – it was carpeting that had been pulled up and all that was left was a pad. It couldn’t be cleaned. A year or so later, the mother is in her new Habitat house and is asked, “What do you like best about your Habitat house?”

I thought, “She’s going to talk about that carpet pad in her kitchen.” But she said, “What I like best about my house is that I feel better about myself. I picked out these colors for the walls and they look so good, and I think I’m going to become an interior decorator.”

At that point, it occurred to me that it’s not just about having a decent floor and a low-energy bill. It is about self-respect

Bringing People Together

Seeking to put God’s love into action,

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County brings people together

to build homes, communities, and hope.

 

Bringing people together can be quite a feat. It seems easier to choose a side to fight for and defend. Finding common ground and creating win-win situations can be a rare event.

But it happens at Habitat Kent all the time. Part of our mission is to bring people together to make a difference in our community. We specialize in building affordable homes, strengthening communities, and being a catalyst for hope. And in order to accomplish this, we go out of our way to bring everyone together.

Habitat Kent has done this for over 40 years.

We know what we’re doing.

We’ve hosted interfaith builds so that people of different religions could come together and serve. Schools have joined together to build Habitat Kent homes and as early as 1987, a black Baptist congregation and a white Christian Reformed congregation joined together to build a Habitat home.

We’re committed to bringing people together from all walks of life. It’s no secret that construction is a male-dominated industry. We often hear from our female volunteers that they are initially hesitant to use power tools or a circular saw.

A group of women who are dedicated to Habitat’s mission are actively working to empower other women to be more comfortable on construction sites. The Women of Habitat Kent have organized networking events, hands-on workshops, and Women Build days just for women to practice their skills with a hammer or nail gun. “I have enjoyed meeting like-minded women who want to work together for a common goal of raising awareness for families in need of affordable housing,” says Cindy, one of the Women of Habitat Kent’s Council members.

Corporate partners are another key component to our efforts of bringing people together.

For our 40th Anniversary this year, we launched our first ever Beer City USA Build. Eight participating breweries have come out on job sites to help build homes alongside our team throughout the month of April.

One of our partners said, “Saugatuck Brewing Co. is overjoyed to be a part of this collaboration with Habitat for Humanity alongside other cherished local breweries, to build an affordable house in the Baxter neighborhood! Our community thrives when we come together, and Habitat for Humanity has given us the ability to do just that!”

By bringing people together, we’re able to make a lasting impact well beyond the walls of a single house. We are able to tear down the walls that divide us, while building the walls that protect us and help us flourish. After 40 years of doing just that, 500 Habitat Kent homeowners are a testament to the work that can be done when people come together.

Seeking to put God’s love into action…

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County brings people together, to build homes, communities, and hope. 

Our mission statement, constructed of three simple phrases, economically expresses the “why,” the “how,” and the “what,” of Habitat for Humanity’s work.  

What does Habitat do? We build homes, communities, and hope. 

How do we do that? By bringing people together 

Why do we do this work? Because we’re seeking to put God’s love into action.  

The absolute bedrock of Habitat’s reason for being is stated in our Vision Principles. It is the belief that “God’s love and grace abound for all, and we are to be the hands and feet of that love.”  

There is a strong sense of equality in that statement. If the love of God is freely given for all people; if they are given that worth, just by being alive, then wouldn’t they also be worthy of far more basic things, like food, shelter, education, liberty, the pursuit of happiness?   

That is our why.  

If we were called to educate, then God’s love would motivate us to find ways to help those on the margins of our educational system. If we were farmers, that love would move us to work hard to provide healthy food to the hungry.  

We have chosen, as our means of expressing the love and grace of God, to work with families in need to build affordable homes.  

That belief forms our theological underpinnings, and its brevity and simplicity are profound! It makes room for people of all backgrounds to join with Habitat to express their own sense of justice and compassion.   

And that’s what’s truly great about Habitat. We’re fine with people joining this work because of their own “why.” Habitat is not called to this work to get people to believe in our “why.” We’re simply called to help provide the very basic, and yet vitally important, need for housing. 

So regardless of your “why,” if you’re concerned about families in need of affordable housing, you’re already a part of the Habitat family! 

And over the past 40 years, our family has become quite large, with lots of reasons “why”: 

“Let’s just say my life is deeply influenced by Matthew 25” 

Warren shared his story at a barbeque fundraiser benefitting Habitat Kent.  

He had had a full life. He had spent two different stints in Africa, working for his denomination, and another full career developing curriculum for Michigan’s Department of Corrections.  

Warren was also an early Habitat volunteer, and he recalled painting some of the first Habitat Kent houses. It was clear, he enjoyed living a life of service that focused on helping people on the margins. In that parking lot, over a great plate of barbeque, we asked Warren what motivated him to live such an exemplary life. 

With a soft tone and no elaboration, he said, “Let’s just say my life is deeply influenced by Matthew 25.” This portion of scripture contains the final teachings of Jesus in which he tells his followers what he expects of them, namely that they should care for those in need, just as if they were caring for Jesus himself. This was Warren’s “why.”  

“The kitchen table was full of volunteer brochures, and I was told to pick one!” 

We love the next story for its honesty and humor! 

Before retirement and prior to joining Habitat Kent’s group of regular volunteers, the Carpenter’s Club, Bob worked on an automotive production line for most of his life.  

“I spent over 30 years on the line,” he said, “and two weeks into retirement I came downstairs for breakfast and there on the kitchen table, my wife had placed all these brochures showing volunteer opportunities at various organizations. The table was full of them.” 

“You’re going to have to pick one,” she said. 

“I like working with my hands,” he said with a chuckle, “so I picked Habitat.” 

Like the many retirees who are the backbone of Habitat Kent’s productivity, Bob enjoyed the camaraderie found on Habitat jobsites. Another Habitat Carpenter’s Club member once told us that because of the friendships formed on Habitat jobsites, his retirement years were the best of his life!  

Friendships and the opportunity to stay active is their “why.” 

“I get to share God’s love without using words.” 

Another great story comes to us from a volunteer who was very skilled, a hard worker, and exceedingly soft-spoken; so quiet, in fact, one almost got the impression that speaking was painful. “I get to share God’s love without using words,” was the response given to the question of why volunteer at Habitat.  

Whether that was a retelling of the quote commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (“Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words”) or a: “why are you bothering me with questions? Can’t you see I’m working” – we do not know!  

Either way, the belief that God’s love and grace abounds for all and becomes real and tangible when it results in action, is at the heart of Habitat’s vision and work. The work of bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope! 

It is our, Why! 

Turning a House into a Home: Linda’s Story

Linda first applied for a Habitat Kent house in December 2019. She was approved but had to wait for a home to become available. She was finally offered and accepted her home in October 2021. During that time, and throughout the fourteen-month period in the homebuyer program, Linda and her sister, Willie Mae, lived in a small apartment paying high rent.

Linda has loved her time with Habitat Kent and makes a point to attend every event that she can. She has especially enjoyed her time working on construction sites. She said that working with the construction staff and volunteers gave her a chance to meet people from all different walks of life that she wouldn’t have met otherwise. Everything about Habitat Kent has been a rewarding experience for Linda, but she says that painting and doing the finishing touches on her house has been her favorite part. There’s something to be said about making a house look like a home.

In December Linda celebrated her home dedication on a cold and blowy winter day. But inside was all warmth and bright smiles as staff and volunteers gathered with Linda.

Linda was able to move in just after Christmas. She can’t wait to turn her new house into a home where she can relax and enjoy time with family and friends. She’s also looking forward to getting to know her new neighbors and exploring her community.

But most of all Linda is looking forward to this time next year when she can have everyone over for a big holiday meal!

“A Safe Place to Call Our Own”

Tory’s relationship with Habitat for Humanity began very early on in her life. Riding on the bus to and from school, she would see the signs outside of Habitat Kent build sites and whisper to herself “I want one of those!” Tory’s dreams are now being realized as her new home stands in the very same neighborhood she grew up in.

“I am looking forward to creating a space for my family to be whole in; a safe place, a place we can call our own.”

This home will support Tory’s family in many ways and open doors to new opportunities for her children. Most notably, each child will have their own room, and the family will be able to take pride in owning and maintaining their home.

Before she partnered with Habitat Kent to build her new home, Tory and her family were living in a small 2-bedroom apartment that did not suit their needs. They battled through some setbacks at the end of their sweat equity hours – but Tory found strength through the support of other Habitat homeowners and staff. Of her accomplishment, she says, “I like to think I am breaking the cycle and showing my kids to never give up.”

Work with a Purpose : Celebrating Bill and his 21 Years of Service!

Today we give a big shout-out celebrating Bill Moerdyk, currently the longest-serving member on Habitat Kent’s team. Throughout his 21 years of service, he has been led by a heart for the mission and for the homeowners of the houses he has helped build.

After serving as missionaries in Nigeria for ten years, Bill and his family cultivated a strong sense of what it means to make an impact at the community level by engaging in mission-centered work. While talent and experience bring value to the table, Bill believes one of the most important aspects of building a Habitat home is to reflect an understanding of the mission and of the families we walk alongside on their homeownership journeys.

Having served Habitat Kent in various roles since he began his career here in 2001, Bill confidently states that he is most effective in his current role as Senior Site Supervisor. To date, Bill has built about 370 Habitat Kent homes. He loves being on the job sites, instructing volunteers, teaching new skills, and connecting with the families who will one day live in the homes being built. One of his joys is empowering people to complete tasks they previously did not feel equipped to do.

Bill’s legacy with Habitat Kent spans statewide. He is the founder behind the annual Construction Roundtable, a gathering of construction employees from all Habitat affiliates in Michigan with the goal of advancing building strategies and learning what’s new on the market. This Construction Roundtable was picked up by Habitat Michigan and is now known as the ‘Homes Summit.’ He also previously led Habitat Kent’s ‘Brush of Kindness’, a three-day project where Habitat Kent partnered with 250 Americorp volunteers to improve 14 homes on one street.

Bill says of the work we do, “we are a witness not only to the families we serve, but to each other and to the neighborhoods we work in.” 

We are so grateful for Bill, and for the countless lives he has touched in his many years of service to Habitat Kent and our community. 

19 households become homeowners with your help: annual impact report 2022

“The truth is, there are no words to fully express our gratitude.” 

Those are the words of Bilsan, the 2021 Habitat Kent Homeowner of the Year.  Those words are tribute to the hard work our volunteers put in, the generosity of our donors, and the commitment of our community.

Hear more from Bilsan and other Habitat Homeowners and learn about our first all-electric house, Women of Habitat Kent, neighborhood engagement activities, and other big strides we made over the past fiscal year with your support!

Read more here.

Quanette’s Homeownership Journey

Quanette’s journey to Habitat Kent began when she was informed that her apartment was being sold and that she would have to move out. With Grand Rapids area rents so high and rising, she soon realized it would be a challenge to find a place that gave her the space she needed at a price she could afford.

Fortunately, her parents suggested she and the kids stay with them while she prepared herself for more permanent housing. When she returned to house hunting, she found that the opportunities were the same: no adequately sized housing was available in her price range.

That’s when Quanette remembered Habitat Kent. A close friend had a Habitat house and had told Quanette to check out the program.

Quanette entered our program with a lot of energy. So much in fact, that she completed her sweat equity before her house was even under construction.

“When my own house started, I couldn’t stay away. I wanted the pride of being able to say, ‘I helped build my own house. I can now look at it and I know I helped build this wall. I helped with painting and siding and the front steps.’”

Quanette worked so much extra time, that she gifted some of her extra sweat equity to other single moms in the program. “As a single mom, I know how hard it can be, so I wanted to give back to other single moms. Volunteers came out and helped me, so I wanted to help others as I had been helped.

Seeing the volunteers on my house put a spark in me. You have all these people coming out and they are happy to be there. It really touched me. There are a lot of good people in the world. People who are still willing to help other people.

This house has brought my family together. It will make us closer. We are so looking forward to the holidays now. We can’t wait to host. I can also see the joy and pride that my children have in their house.”

Congratulations, Quanette, and thank you to everyone who helped her on her journey to homeownership!

Celebrating Home with Nelson and Rosa

Homes are where families are nurtured, memories are created, and dreams are brought to life. Homes give us the space and security to work and plan for a better tomorrow. Last week we were able to celebrate this milestone with Nelson and Rosa’s family during their Habitat home dedication.

Helping their children to have a better future is why Nelson and Rosa sought out Habitat and put in the hard work to make this house their family’s home.

“Our family is getting older and growing and we need more space,” says Nelson. “Even having enough room at the table for our children to do school work is difficult. And trying to do that in Covid was very hard.”

Completing the Habitat journey wasn’t easy either. It meant working night shifts and then going directly to a Habitat jobsite. But even during that effort the family enjoyed the process. “The best part of the experience was working with families from everywhere – all over the world. Even if we didn’t speak each other’s languages and only communicated through gestures, we worked together and helped each other.”

Their new home will provide the space for this family to continue their journey and nurture their dreams. For the kids, who plan to enroll in Southwestern High School at Plaza Roosevelt, it means their school will be very close. Almost a decade ago we purchased the property where the school sits and the community shared with us their own dream of having a school there. To have a Habitat family move into this neighborhood and enjoy the benefits of that project is our dream come true.

Congratulations, Nelson and Rosa and family!