MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity's Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.
A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.
"When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area," said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.
Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.
Morehead Area Habitat's most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.
So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.
Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.
"They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing," Dike said.
Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.
Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.
Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.
The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.
"I think there are a lot of people out there with skills," Dike said. "We're not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense."
Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.
"It's an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day," James said. "Most people have really enjoyed it."
That's certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.
"I just love doing it," said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.
"It's fun, and I've learned so much," Burns said. "I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn't have time for that."
Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work.
"Plus, it helps make a difference in people's lives," Seithers said. "This is something I can do, so I'm doing it."