A Celebration to Remember: 40 years and 500 Homeowners

Photo credit left and top right: Mojet Photography

On October 26th, we gathered with over 300 community members at our 40th Anniversary Event celebrating 500 homeowners! It was an incredible evening reflecting on our history and the impact we have made as a community. 

We were uplifted by the many stories shared by and about our founders, volunteers, supporters, and Habitat Kent homeowners. Quanette, a Habitat Kent Homeowner since 2019, shared about her journey to homeownership and said she was moved by the outpouring of support. “The volunteers working on my house didn’t know me, but they were out there every single day. Knowing that people care and are trying to get community back – it touches me a lot.”  

Keynote Speaker Majora Carter, an expert on neighborhood revitalization, inspired us to continue working toward building thriving communities: “Instead of building an idea that you have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one, help others see the power of investing in your communities. That is what helps create stability.”  

Dr. Linda Smith emphasized this message. Smith grew up in the third Habitat Kent home and is now Corporate Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at a large global company.  She gave a testimony of hope and opportunity, and encouraged guests to invest in their communities by supporting local organizations like Habitat as her family does. 

We were also honored to recognize the recipients of the 2023 Habitat Kent Awards and thrilled to have so many of them celebrating with us at the event: 

Hope Award – Habitat Kent Founders: Honoring those who emulate hope in our community 

Jonathan Bradford – Inner City Christian Federation, Federal Home Loan Bank; Alistair Brown – Scott Christopher Homes; George Heartwell – Heartwell Mortgage, Mayor – City of Grand Rapids; Dave Jacobs – Home Repair Services; Betty Zylstra – Salvation Army Booth Family Services, Community Food Club 

Stability Award – Van Haren Electric Inc.: Honoring a long-term supporter with roots in our past and a vision for the future

Opportunity Award – Mercantile Bank: Honoring a partner who provides opportunities to give back to their community and opportunities for community growth

It was tremendous being surrounded by so many supporters who care deeply about building a world everyone has a decent, affordable place to call home. We are grateful for what we’ve accomplished together and are incredibly optimistic about the next decade of working together with a passionate and dedicated community! 

Watch Linda and others share their Habitat stories! 

Check out more photos from the celebration! 

Welcome new board member, Rich Cherry

We are pleased to welcome Richard (RichCherry to our Board of Directors! Rich joined the board earlier this fall and is a proud product of Southwestern Michigan.  He attended Kalamazoo College for his undergraduate degree in Political Science and earned his law degree from Wayne State University Law School.

Rich is currently a partner at Miller Johnson – a full-service law firm in Michigan.  Prior to joining Miller Johnson, he served as the Deputy City Attorney for the City of Kalamazoo. Rich is a member of the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys, and is on the Kalamazoo Choral Arts Board of Directors.  He also served as the President of the Judge Charles A. Pratt Bar Association and the Board President for the Douglass Community Association. In his legal career, Rich specializes in litigation, municipal law, and labor and employment law and also has extensive experience in the areas of community and economic development.

In his free time, Rich spends quality time with his wife, Katie, and his three kids, Austin, Norah and Miles.

Welcome new board member, Carolyn

In September, we welcomed new board member, Carolyn Sullivan. Carolyn is an associate at Varnum LLP.  She obtained her J.D. from Michigan State University College of Law. Now, as an experienced labor and employment attorney, her practice focuses on compliance with federal and state labor and employment laws and other workplace matters. 

She provides counsel on a wide range of matters including effective employee handbooks and policies, discrimination, ADA compliance, sexual harassment, MIOSHA, and wage-hour issues. She litigates and defends employers in federal and state courts, as well as on administrative charges, including unemployment and EEOC matters. She also has experience counseling on employee benefit plans. 

Carolyn became involved with Habitat by volunteering when she was in college. She looks forward to serving on our Board of Directors because, she says, “I want to be part of an organization that has helped hundreds of people and families in the Kent County community, where I grew up and live now.” 

Welcome Home, Isaac and Elizabeth!

Isaac and Elizabeth recently closed on their Habitat Kent house, becoming first-time homeowners. But they were champions of Habitat Kent well before joining our homeownership program. They first learned about the organization by translating for their friends and community members to help them complete their Habitat homebuyer applications.  

After years of helping their friends, they decided to apply because they wanted a safe and stable home with plenty of space for their children. While their journey to homeownership was long with plenty of ups and downs, they remained steadfast. With their children on their minds, they worked hard to complete their sweat equity hours, required classes, and homebuyer workshops. On the day of their home dedication their joy was evident by the bright smiles on their faces and heartfelt words shared by Isaac about what this home means to their family. 

Isaac and Elizabeth enjoyed working with the staff and many volunteers and thank everyone involved for assisting them in their homeownership journey. They’re eager to host gatherings and holidays and celebrate their kids’ birthdays in their home for many years! 


The Past, Present and Future of Affordable Housing

Picture: Mayor Bliss celebrated the home dedication with our Executive Director, Bev Thiel, and the future homeowners of the all-electric homes on Diamond. Photo by Mojet Photography.

The past, present and future of affordable housing was on full display at the recent dedication of Habitat Kent’s Diamond Avenue Project. 

Three families will make their home there, and just as 500 Habitat Kent families have done over the last 40 years, they will find stability, strength and opportunity through their affordable homes. 

The project was also a great example of Habitat Kent living into the central core of our mission, which is “bringing people together.” It started with a coalition organized by the National Ready-Mix Concrete Association that included: Consumers Concrete, Burgess Concrete Construction, Helix Steel, IntegraSpec ICF, Aggregate Industries, HolcimUS, and Master Builder Solutions. Together, along with a generous gift from Kum & Go corporation, they provided us with the materials and expertise to build the project using insulated concrete forms.

The result was 3 homes of superior strength, energy efficiency, and quietness, assembled by over 60 different volunteer groups from area schools, congregations and businesses 

But the project also represents a shift in our desire to significantly contribute to meeting the affordable housing needs of a growing city. “If our community and industry is going to provide the housing our citizens need, we have to employ higher density strategies,” said Executive Director, Bev Thiel. 

To accomplish this, we utilized zoning laws that enabled us to produce three attached, single-family homes on lots that were traditionally zoned for just two. 

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss told those gathered at the dedication, “We have had this vision of higher density, zero-lot-line, infill for a long time, and this project is a perfect example,” she said. “Affordable, accessible housing is a complex issue, and we need a multitude of solutions to get there, and this is one of them.” 

To learn more about our use of zero-lot-line laws, see this video or this one. 

Just as higher density is the future of housing in the city; low, or no-emission homes are the future of houses, everywhere. Homes are responsible for 26% of all energy used in Michigan, and 80% of that energy comes from greenhouse gas emitting sources occurring directly in the home. Simply put, someday our homes will take center stage in eliminating carbon emissions. 

For Habitat Kent, that someday is now. The homes on Diamond are all-electric, meaning that no emissions will take place within the home. Going forward, all Habitat Kent homes will be similarly equipped. The best news of all, the ratings of our first all-electric homes show Habitat Kent families will save even more money than before. It’s a win for families and a win for the future! 

You can learn more about our move to all-electric homes here. 

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.”