John E. ShafferJohn E. Shaffer
New Executive Director Habitat for Humanity DeKalb

Many people have exclaimed, “ Why have you moved from Colorado? What a beautiful place!”  I’ve reflected on the answer to that question often. In fact, occasionally I awaken to the terror of being in a completely new place, wondering “What have I done?” I’m a tenant for the first time in several decades. I’m facing cultural differences that are still sorting themselves out. I’m spending a lot of time away from my wife and two 100# chocolate labs whose boundless joy and energy wipe out those moments of fear and uncertainty.

I left Colorado in August, having lived there since graduating from seminary in 1976. Yes, I have a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. But you’ll discover that I am not ordained. I realized when I was at the door of graduation, having a full load of Greek, Hebrew, and all the other requirements to become ordained, that I just was not called to be a minister. So I went back to Colorado, the state of my undergraduate experience. There I followed my true passion, instilled by my missionary Grandfather, and became a carpenter. Over the next decades, I realized the success (and failure) of my own construction companies, beginning to incorporate my two passions of ministry and construction through nonprofits engaged in helping others, first with weatherization, next with housing rehabilitation, and finally, full circle to homeownership.

In 1992 my wife and I founded Rocky Mountain Human Services Coalition, Inc. a 501(c) 3 coalition of nonprofit stakeholders intent on providing homeownership opportunities for low income and first time homebuyers. We applied for a HOPE 3 grant, a U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program started at the end of the first Bush administration. That program provided funds to purchase foreclosures, rehabilitate them, and sell them to low income buyers (a lot like HUD’s NSP program today). We were thrilled to receive funding two years running for a total $1.2 million. Over the next fifteen years, in the seven county metropolitan Denver area, we leveraged those funds into 275 vacant, distressed foreclosures purchased, rehabbed, and sold to qualified buyers, with a total street value of $30,000,000.

Habitat for Humanity meanwhile had been restructuring to broaden its ability to help more families in their mission to eliminate poverty housing from the globe. They added the ability to accept government funds, incorporated the Restore concept, and began reemphasizing the rehabilitation of distressed properties as a model for providing homeownership opportunities. Many people don’t realize that Jimmy Carter’s first “Build” with Habitat was the rehabilitation of a multi-family building!

As the national economic crisis worsened, with real estate at the center of the collapse, I realized that I needed a bigger tool box than was available in our small nonprofit. Habitat for Humanity provided the name, the reputation, and the ability to raise funds that weren’t available to me in Colorado.

When the Executive Director position became available with Habitat for Humanity DeKalb (HFHD), my curiosity was piqued. Here was a Habitat affiliate who had begun taking all the right steps toward success. They had become a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) in order to avail themselves of HUD funding set-asides. They were working on establishing a Restore. They were already accomplishing 10 rehabilitation projects per year. And they had been tapped to participate in the new Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) established by Habitat for Humanity International. This opened up opportunities for a full range of services, from A Brush With Kindness (painting dilapidated exteriors), through minor home repair and weatherization, to major home repair, and finally purchase and rehabilitation of foreclosed homes.

Of course I was concerned about the city’s “HOTlanta” reputation, but decided to take the leap of faith required for such a move. I counted on cooling off by kayaking with my brother in local rivers. I took further advantage of his largesse, as he allowed me to stay with him in his Suwanee home for the first month.

When I was given the appointment here, I came out a few days early. I was rewarded immediately when I went to Tucker High School (THS) to sign the covenant between HFHD and the THS chapter (I didn’t even know Habitat had campus chapters!!). As I sat in their brand new media center, I watched 10 then 20 then finally over 100 kids stream in to pay their $10 for membership and a t-shirt. I was blown away. After a little research I discovered that these kids have raised over $130,000 for Habitat over the years, accomplished 8 Builds with HFHD, and participated in several Collegiate Challenges that took them to Taos, Mobile, and other cities to participate in building homes for others. I changed my priorities on the spot.

As I spoke with the students and their sponsors, I realized the vibrancy of these future leaders of our country. I harkened back to my experience as a Young Life leader in Boulder, Colorado, as the students related their involvement in that Christian outreach organization. I determined to make a priority of establishing Habitat chapters in all the high schools and local college campuses. I have received tremendous support from DeKalb County through their government officials, citizens, neighborhood groups, and grass roots organizations such as ONEDeKalb and Enough is Enough.

Several times in my career I have described my life as having come full circle. This moment is truly the fulfillment of the broadest circle of my life, bringing together the breadth of my construction experience and my passion ministry. Why did I move from Colorado? Each day I am reminded why, as the miracle of the breadth of the Habitat for Humanity ministry unfolds around me. I look forward to serving DeKalb County as well as the wider Atlanta area.

For more about Habitat for Humanity DeKalb, visit this link or find the organization on Facebook.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

One reply on “First Person: Habitat for Humanity DeKalb’s new director”

  1. me and fixing to be husbend filled out the app. for habitat for humanity and went to a metting went through everything and we were living in a shed and they turned us down because we did not have some more income and are credit was not good for them we live in clanton alabama and i wanted to know can they turn you down for that. the one family we knew they had very poor credit and they got them a house that seems wrong to us. so what to they build houses for rich people and with a very high 600 credit score. i want something down these people are wrong in clanton alabama habitat for humanity. they will do you wrong.i am a real person and so is my husbend.

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