Merlene Davis: Lexington's Habitat for Humanity to celebrate 25 years of building houses, community

First Presbyterian Church member Matt Deffendall volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity build on Second Street in Lexington.
First Presbyterian Church member Matt Deffendall volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity build on Second Street in Lexington. Lexington Herald-Leader

In April 1990, a report in this newspaper said Ernest Turner was smiling as he watched a group of Lexington Habitat for Humanity volunteers build — in less than 24 hours, start to finish — what was to become his family's home.

In 2008, Turner, along with his wife, Angela, were overjoyed to be the first Habitat homeowners in Lexington to pay off their 20-year mortgage, accomplishing that feat two years early.

And Wednesday, the second time I've interviewed him, Turner's gratitude for Habitat had not waned.

"Because of the low mortgage, our baby girl is going to BCTC (Bluegrass Community and Technical College)," he said. "Our son has one degree and is working on another. There is no way we could have two kids go to college without Habitat. It just made everything easier."

That scenario in a nutshell is what Habitat is all about.

Not only does the nonprofit Christian housing ministry believe everyone should have safe, affordable homes, but it also understands that homeownership benefits the entire community. And the community in turn, according to Dana Stefaniak, Habitat resource development director, has been generous in its support of the organization. "We could not do it without the community," she said.

In 2012, Habitat benefited from 99,644 volunteer hours, she said.

To thank this community and the many volunteers, donors, families and staff who have contributed to its continued existence, Lexington Habitat is celebrating its 25th anniversary Sept. 22, with an open house at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center.

There will be memorabilia on display reflecting the history of the organization, including two reclaimed doors covered in press clippings and photographs from more than two decades.

Lextran trolleys will carry visitors on a 25-minute guided tour of the 10-block radius around the Lyric where 40 houses have been built, some on Hawkins Avenue with the help of late actor Paul Newman in 1991. Mayor Jim Gray is scheduled to take the first trolley at 2 p.m., along with original board members and longtime volunteers. A trolley will depart every 15 minutes.

A putt-putt course made from items donated to the Lexington Habitat ReStore and a giant Jenga game will be part of the interactive displays.

Lexington Habitat dedicated its first home on Sept. 7, 1988. Since then more than 380 families have experienced homeownership. Despite the good intentions, however, not everything has gone as well as desired.

"When you write a mortgage 380 times you will have some who don't make it," said Habitat CEO Rachel Childress,

While 80 percent of the original owners are still in their homes, some have lost their homes to foreclosures. Two owners living in separate houses fell in love, got married and united their families under one roof, returning the other home to Habitat.

Childress quotes the late Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat International in 1973, as saying, "If you don't have some people who don't make it, you are not serving the right population."

The foreclosure or return rate is about 2 percent, she said. There have been families who were taught financial management, but who reverted to their old ways.

"The really dark side is that there are people who aren't ever going to be homeowners," Childress said.

And the organization struggled during the economic downturn, when donations were hard to come by. Staff was cut back and positions went unfilled.

"Still we managed to serve 15-20 families a year," she said. "Everyone deserves to have a decent place to live."

So the organization wants to thank all those people who have helped families gain a piece of the American Dream.

"We want to shake hands and pat backs and say we did it because of you," Stefaniak said. "That is one of our mottos."

That's what the Turners would like to do for Habitat. They have volunteered with Habitat all these years, helping to build 50 houses in earlier years and now serving on the selection committee.

"We enjoy Habitat so much," Turner said. "We can't give back enough. We have made lifelong friends."

If you go

What: 25th Anniversary celebration for Lexington Habitat for Humanity.

When: 2-5 p.m. Sept. 22.

Where: Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

Call: (859) 252-2224.