Habitat for Humanity builds partnerships throughout the Northwoods
A breezy weekend found brief reprieve just before a modest crowd gathered in Rhinelander last weekend to witness the “groundbreaking” for Habitat for Humanity Northwoods’ newest project. Although this is the organization’s nineteenth project in less than two decades, this year’s project is unique. That is because it will be the first one conducted under a new partnership with the Rhinelander School District.
Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976, and has had a presence in the Northwoods since the late 1990s. Habitat’s mission is to eliminate substandard housing by building simple, decent houses that are efficient and will keep costs low. The organization purchases materials before constructing their houses largely on volunteer labor. This keeps costs down for the families.
Habitat for Humanity Northwoods covers the counties of Oneida and Vilas, and has frequently had projects in the Rhinelander, Minocqua, and Eagle River areas. Their eighteenth house is currently under construction in Hazelhurst, and this house in Rhinelander will be the local chapter’s nineteenth development. Construction Committee Chairman Rich Urban emphasized their goal of keeping costs down for the families once the houses are built. “We focus on the energy efficiency and sustainability of the home.” None of the houses have basements, and all are built with flooring meant to conserve energy and keep costs low, especially during hard northern Wisconsin winters.
It was Urban who initially approached Russ Germain about the potential partnership with the school district. Germain teaches Rhinelander High School’s Building Trades course which famously has built houses since the class was started in the 1980s in a manner similar to Habitat.
Habitat Northwoods President Mike Cleven is enthusiastic about the new partnership. “We are very excited to partner with the school district,” said Cleven. “We hope to be partners for years to come.”
Germain is also excited by the opportunities and freedom afforded by the new partnership. “Habitat will really take a lot of concerns with the purchasing of materials out of our hands, so we can concentrate on the construction.” Many of Germain’s students were present at the groundbreaking ceremony. They will soon become very familiar with the plot, as they will be spending several hours there every week as they plan and build the house. The Building Trades students will be responsible for all of the construction aside from trade work, like electricity and plumbing, that will require hired professionals.
Greg and Jennifer Bohn were chosen by the organization after a lengthy selection process. Greg said that he first heard about Habitat from a friend who benefitted from a similar program. “Jennifer immediately started some research, and then we began the application process.” This all began more than three years ago.
One consideration for the selection process is how willing and able the chosen family is to help out with construction. Greg Bohn has been helping on the build in Hazelhurst. Smiling, he says, “I did half the roof on that one. It doesn’t even feel like work. It’s fun, and you get to work with a crew of really good people.” The average Habitat house in Wisconsin has three bedrooms and one bathroom, and takes 4,000 hours of volunteer work to complete.
President Cleven is quick to emphasize that no one has ever received a free house from Habitat. “It’s not a hand-out, it’s a hand-up.” Habitat buys the mortgage on the new houses so they can offer the families a zero-interest mortgage.
After introductions and a few words about the organization’s mission and their plans for this house, the ground was actually broken. Armed with shovels, Executive Director Bob Davis and District Superintendent Kelli Jacobi, along with Greg and Jennifer Bohn and their son Owen, dug in, officially opening the plot for construction. Bob Davis expects that development will begin very soon. “Hopefully we will finish up the house in Hazelhurst soon so we can really get started on this new one. The new partnership is a great opportunity.”
Germain’s Building Trades class has built a new house every year, and they expect a similar timeline for this one. The new partnership will streamline the process for the school district while providing knowledgeable volunteer construction to Habitat. Local volunteer Gerald Check has been on the construction committee for several years, and is happy to continue working with Habitat. The feeling must be infectious. “It’s a really great program,” says Greg Bohn. “I can definitely see myself doing work for Habitat for years to come.”