When Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1988, its first leaders didn’t have much guidance to go by, according to founder Jan Kennedy.

Kennedy said the original Board of Directors was a group of pioneers trying to chart its way forward with earnest dreams about how they could change the situation facing low-income residents in Gwinnett County. The chapter’s early years were a crash course in how to be a nonprofit for its leaders, however.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Kennedy said. “None of us had led a nonprofit organization. We knew nothing about that. We were guided by the guidelines that we got from Habitat for Humanity International … and God’s vision. The pastor at Hopewell Baptist had a member of his church who needed a better house and he had some property near the church.

“So that’s how we happened to do our first house (in 1989).”

Supporters of Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity gathered for its 30th anniversary celebration at the site of four houses it is building in unincorporated Duluth on Thursday.

Over the span of 30 years, Gwinnett Habitat has built or rehabilitated homes for 138 Gwinnett families and completed 126 home preservation projects. The preservation projects have allowed 70 elderly Gwinnett residents to stay in their homes, according to Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity Board of Directors President Don Goldsmith.

“None of this would have been possible without the generosity of our volunteers, our sponsors and our donors,” he said.

Creating a foundation

in the late 1980s

There were challenges in the early days, particularly the mindset of many Gwinnett residents about the situation involving residents who were either homeless or living precariously in whatever home they had.

Kennedy said there were many people in the community who didn’t see homelessness as a problem in Gwinnett County in the late 1980s. They ran into issues with residents who didn’t want low-income neighbors, the founder said.

“There were people who thought, ‘Well, success lives here in Gwinnett,’ and ‘This is the Golden Ghetto,’ and all that, and ‘there weren’t any poor people living in Gwinnett’ because they lived in beautiful subdivisions,” Kennedy said.

The biggest issue the organization ran into, however, was a lack of land at the board’s disposal to build houses on.

Kennedy said Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity’s original leaders were so busy getting the organization set up in its early years that they probably couldn’t have visualized what it would become.

“If we could have had as much land as we wanted, my goodness, we probably would have thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able build 10 houses?’” Kennedy said.

Eventually, as Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity steadied its footing, it grew. It moved into office space provided by Mountain Park United Methodist Church in 1994 and hired its first full-time executive director, Walt Thompson, in 1997.

A year later, the organization began clearing land for its first neighborhood development, Carlton Cove Subdivision, which included 14 homes. It began work on its 23-home Stokeswood Townhomes development in 2008 and completed its 100th home in 2009.

The Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity ReStore opened in Lawrenceville in 2010, and the organization received Habitat for Humanity International’s Malachi 3:10 Award in 2013 for reaching a lifetime tithing total of $500,000. The A Brush With Kindness program began in 2014.

Stories of triumph

Attendees at the anniversary celebration got to hear from three homeowners — Van Bik, Nyshawn Jenkins and Leanne Parks — who have been helped by the local organization.

Jenkins fought back tears as she recalled the journey that led the Army veteran from California to a rehabilitated home that was provided to her family by Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity. She said she had been the victim of predatory lending in California when she tried to refinance her mortgage.

It cost her family its home, but Jenkins felt a calling from God to move to Georgia. The family settled in Gwinnett and she said her children began thriving in the county’s school system.

The mother of three, who worked three jobs, promised her kids they would have a house to call home again.

That led her to Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity and she became the recipient of the organization’s first veterans build home last year.

“I was just simply amazed at this whole experience,” Jenkins said. “I’ve recognized the only way I was able to accomplish my promise to my kids was through Habitat.”

A vision for the future

Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Brent Bohanan also laid out the organization’s plans for the next three years during the luncheon.

The local Habitat chapter is launching a Better Homes Brighter Futures campaign that will include increasing the number of affordable homes built annually to 24 homes, becoming a Neighborhood Revitalization affiliate, creating a $1.5 million land bank fund, helping 122 low-income seniors through the A Brush With Kindness program and establishing an endowment.

In all, the organization’s goal is to raise $10 million over three years.

“Our board began to think about how we were going to celebrate this anniversary really over a year or so ago and we decided we really don’t want to be satisfied with all of this,” Bohanan said. “All of this is great and we’ve accomplished a lot, but we don’t want to be satisfied. We want to do more. We want to serve more families and reach out and do more.”

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