Lake County, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35) – Kathleen Mabry says joining the U.S. Army at 32 years old, was one of the most difficult things she has ever done. It was the early 1970’s and Mabry was a single mom who needed a job. So, she turned over temporary, legal custody of her children to her best friend and shipped out for grueling basic training.”It was tough. But I was raised tough.” Mabry says. She served stateside in the Army for 6 years during the tail end of the Vietnam War. Her career ended not long after a severe injury while on duty. Decades later, she received a thank you for her service she says she never saw coming. She is one of the newest resident in the Veterans Village. It is a small Umatilla neighborhood built by Habitat for Humanity of Lake/Sumter. All of the homeowners are veterans of U.S. military service.
The News Station’s Tom Johnson takes you there.
Through his time in the United States Air Force and his various career tracks post-service, Shawn Unger has travelled across most of the North American continent. Born and raised in West Virginia, Shawn enlisted right after graduating high school in 1985 and spent a full year in Mississippi learning to be a radar technician. He was initially slated to head to Europe for his duty station, but it was then changed last minute to South Dakota.
Once he left the Air Force, he began working for SAIC, a major IT support company, and transitioned from there to Sprint where he worked up to a position as Network Service Manager for the AOL account. After a talk with his father one day at a NASCAR race, he decided to try out the trucking world, and drove big rigs all over the US and Canada; his last employer, out of Tampa, is what led him to make Florida his home.
He left the trucking industry to work for the Department of Homeland Security for a short while before returning to an IT position with Convergys in Lake Mary, Florida. He now lives with his two young sons, Phoenix and Caleb, while his eldest son Timmy lives in New Hampshire. Shawn is looking forward to his wedding later this year to his fiancée, Rowena, who is from the Philippines.
Scientists say life is made up of atoms and energy, but I say it is made up of stories. Stories help us understand how we impact the world and how the world impacts us. Our stories can be silly, or heartbreaking, or thrilling. Some stories are brief – a spontaneous weekend getaway and some can span years – a journey of self-discovery. I think the best stories are the ones we share with other people, the ones that are experienced both individually and collectively. The people I met on the Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip to Honduras will forever be a part of my story because together we impacted the lives of a deserving family and of each other.
Our team of volunteers – a group of people, whom without Habitat for Humanity, would have probably never met – quickly became a family. We grew to know and appreciate each other’s quirks and each other’s strengths. We shared once-in-a-lifetime-excursions – snorkeling through coral reefs, touring gardens and eating exotic fruits straight from the trees, sharing meals with locals, and visiting a pineapple plantation. For me, the most impactful part of our journey was working side by side, sharing tools and water and a lot of sweat at the build site. The act of joining together to create something so life changing for another family truly fortified the bond of our new volunteer family.
When my mom bakes my birthday cake she says, “I made it with love.” That is how I felt at the build site. As I filled cinder block joints with hand mixed cement and shoveled dirt to fill the foundation, I could feel my love and energy being poured into the Espinoza’s future home. The warm air around me was filled with a surreal feeling of hope and I felt completely at peace. I could picture Tatiana and Dylan playing in their bedrooms, safely surrounded by the walls I helped to build. During our farewell celebration, after becoming so immersed in the culture of Honduras and the Espinoza family, I felt uneasy to be leaving this experience and these people behind me. The Espinoza family touched my soul and I will remember this blessing always. Just as the Espinoza family has become a part of my story, I have become a part of theirs and in that sense, I never fully left. As they move forward and write new stories in their new home, part of me will be there with them…in the dirt, in the cement, and in their hearts.
We knew when we built the Veterans Village that we would meet some people with remarkable backgrounds and unique experiences. After all, serving in the military is essentially a guarantee of at least a few good stories. However, among all of our homeowners in the Veterans Village, none stand out as defiantly and inspirational as Ike Fretz. Our most recent resident to move into the Village, Ike’s history of service is impressive, but it’s what he’s done – and continues to do – post-service that really galvanizes the warrior spirit.
Ike served in the United States Army from 1989 through 1994 and was on active duty for Desert Storm. During that conflict, he sustained an injury while working as part of a two-man evacuation team. His actions earned him several commendations but they also left him permanently injured and wheelchair-bound. It was several years into his recovery and adaptation process that a recreational therapist introduced him to adaptive sports, and it was the beginning of a brand new outlook.
Since then, Ike has won multiple gold medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games events, including power lifting, basketball, bowling, and hand-cycling, which he took to the extreme with a Washington-State-to-Washington-DC cycle in 2012. Ike says that when he competes in these games, he does so to honor other veterans that he holds dear, whether living or passed, and uses his actions in spite of adversities to inspire other veterans to keep fighting.
Because of his profound story, dedication, and impact, an anonymous donor took note of Ike’s placement into a Veterans Village home and decided to pay off Ike’s mortgage, in full, as a way of honoring how he served our country and continues to serve other veterans. We were able to surprise Ike and his caretaker, Sherrie, with the news on May 23, and have an opportunity for the donor to meet Ike and thank him in person. It was a truly moving experience and added yet another momentous chapter to Ike’s already extraordinary story.
Habitat for Humanity of Lake-Sumter will break ground on a new home soon, but the construction crew may look a little younger than usual.
The Villages Charter School and Habitat for Humanity are teaming up through The Villages High School Construction Management Academy to give participating seniors the opportunity to gain firsthand experience on a job site.
Construction on the first home students will have a hand in building will begin in August, but families interested in applying for the home in Lady Lake can do so today through Tuesday at habitatls.org/programs/apply or by calling 352-483-0434.
“Part of the ramp-up was deciding what projects students would take on, because all of our academies are project based,” said Randy McDaniel, the charter school’s director of education.
VHS academies begin with an advisory board made up with professionals from that field.
“We organized a group of people to be on the construction board and began brainstorming sessions,” McDaniel said. “It was during that discussion that one of the architects mentioned Habitat for Humanity.”
Thanks to the partnership, students in the academy with an interest in construction will have the opportunity to gain real-life experience.
“It’s just like all of our academies — the closer you can make the experience to real life, the better it is going to be,” McDaniel said. “They’re going to be learning how to build a house. They will be there from the foundation to completion. That’s about as real world as you get.”
McDaniel said students will practice time management. They will learn how to meet demands and deadlines, and they will gain pride in their work and skills they learn.
“We are very excited about the opportunity for the kids and the school,” he said. “Plus, Habitat’s mission to help people become homeowners is pretty big. My hope is that it goes really well and becomes a long-running partnership.”
As instructor for the academy, Bruce Haberle will oversee the partnership.
As National Women Build Week came to a close, so did The Villages Insurance’s second Team Build with us. This group has been a strong partner of Habitat Lake Sumter for a while, promoting our cause and supporting our events. This month, they came out to work on-site during Women Build and helped us serve a family in Leesburg with some much-needed repairs and renovations. Having strong community partners is key to doing the work we do, and The Villages Insurance helps to fill those ranks with some great people and a drive for service! We wanted to learn more about what continues to drive them to participate in our mission, and this is what they had to say.
- Why does The Villages Insurance enjoy getting involved in Habitat’s mission?
Scott Robertson, former president of The Villages Insurance, was passionate about Habitat for Humanity and its mission. It was important to him that the agency partner with Habitat and our colleagues take a hands on approach in assisting with projects. The first build the agency participated in took place one week before Scott’s unexpected passing. We continue our involvement because it brings us great joy to give back to our community and lend a hand up to families working hard to pursue their dreams of owning a home. Participating in builds and preservation projects is a truly humbling experience. The fact we are working side by side with the homeowner, seeing the excitement and pride first hand, is heartwarming; reminds us that the sweat, sore muscles and bruising are so worth it!
- What experience has been the most meaningful/impactful?
They are all unique and hold special memories in their own right. If I must choose then I’d have to say the first one in November 2015. As I mentioned earlier, this was one week before Scott passed away so it holds extra special memories for everyone who was involved. This was our first experience working with the Habitat team and all the amazing people who work hard to make every step of the program possible for the volunteers, homeowners, professionals, and sponsors. This build was for the Elien Family home, and what a joy it was to see their daughter’s room decorated beautifully at the dedication knowing we helped put the nails in the foundation for her to grow on.
- What are your thoughts on National Women Build Week and the message behind it?
Love it! I think many people still believe you have to be a man with strong muscles to build a home. The National Women Build reminds us all that we can do anything we put our minds to. It’s not necessarily about physical strength (although that certainly helps!) but more about the willingness and desire to help fellow humans wanting to improve their lives and open a world of opportunity for their family. Hard to believe I know, but quite a few of us in the agency are not carpenters or painters. Ask us how to protect the home and we’re your expert! Ask us about what nails to use in which board and we rely on the experts on site to show us the way! We cannot say enough good things about our experiences with Habitat for Humanity. Thank you for the opportunity to be involved, we only have one question – when’s our next our project?
If you think you’re as passionate as The Villages Insurance and would like to share in the experiences they’ve had, reach out to Matt at 352-483-0434 x146 or firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss upcoming opportunities and how we can get your and your group involved!
Whether it’s searching for jewelry, finding a new car, or – in our case – recruiting volunteers, sometimes you find one that truly stands out. In our case, this came in the form of Martha Cole, a retiree and well-tenured Habitat volunteer. Her background in volunteering is extensive and Habitat has usually been the focus of it all. After moving to Lake County, she wasted no time in getting engaged with our efforts and has proven to be a hugely valuable addition to our team.
With National Women Build Week presenting a large amount of work and volunteer groups, we decided we’d need a Crew Leader to help manage the workforce. We asked Martha to take that role and she was key to making that week a success. Now that we’re entering summer and work is slowing down, we wanted to hear from her about how her experience as a Crew Leader was, her thoughts on Women Build as a whole, and what the story is behind one of our favorite volunteers!
- You were excited to be involved in National Women Build Week. What do you think about the event itself?
I think it’s a great concept and I’m grateful to Lowe’s for sponsoring it. It’s a super way to get new volunteers, and the resultant publicity builds public awareness. What’s not to like?!?
- What did you enjoy most about being a Team Leader for Women Build?
Well, due to my advanced age, it’s kind of fun to have a platform from which to be able to inspire women to realize they can do a lot of things they never thought they could, and that age is not necessarily a deterrent. One of my favorite sayings is: “Age is an attitude”. At the end of the day, I tell them to take a good look at what they have just accomplished, and to be proud of having made a difference.
- When did you first get involved with Habitat for Humanity – not our affiliate, but Habitat in general?
My first involvement with Habitat was in 1992. I wasn’t even aware of Habitat for Humanity until a Habitat volunteer addressed the congregation at my church in Naples, FL one Sunday, explaining the concept and telling of the need for volunteer workers. It sounded right up my alley, so I started volunteering and fell in love with the mission, the work, my co-workers, and the whole concept. That was 26 years ago and I’ve done hands-on building one or two days a week ever since…and loved every minute of it. When we decided to move to The Villages, the hardest part for me was leaving my Habitat friends in Collier County, and the first question I asked our realtor in The Villages was whether there was a Habitat chapter here. That was last January, and as soon as I got the boxes all unpacked, I began volunteering at Habitat-LS’s Veteran’s Village site in Umatilla two days a week.
- What’s one of your favorite experiences or build sites? After building 1900 houses more or less the same [in Collier County], a fun experience was to come to the Veterans’ Village where the houses are built so differently, and learn all the new skills of building (vinyl planking floors instead of 12” vinyl tile squares; metal roofs instead of asphalt shingles; cement board siding instead of vinyl siding, etc).
- We hear you’re planning on participating in a Global Village trip this year! Where are you going, and what excites you the most about the trip?
In late October I’m going to El Salvador for a week with my old chapter to build two houses in the area of Ciudad Arce, about 15 miles northwest of San Salvador, the capital. I’ve never built anywhere outside of Florida and I’m really looking forward to the experience. I have no idea what sort of houses we’ll build, but I’m excited to meet and work with the local families who will be the recipients of the houses. Having been fortunate enough to do a lot of traveling, I am struck over and over again how much people are alike all over the world. We all want to be able to provide our families with a decent place to live, and it thrills me to be able to help people achieve this.
As our fiscal year winds down and some board terms come to a close, we also welcome some new faces to the team. Among these is Matt Lovo, an Auburn graduate with over 30 years of purchasing and residential construction management experience. In June, he’ll be installed as one of the new members of the Habitat Lake Sumter Board, and will be bringing his experience, talents, and passion to the team.
With a background directly related to construction, Matt’s a natural fit! He’s worked for four of the Top 25 Homebuilders and currently holds a position as Director of Purchasing for The Villages, focusing on controlling costs and innovating new ways to build homes and efficiency. Prior to this role, he worked in purchasing for various homebuilders in the Tampa area. We asked him about his previous Habitat involvement and why he’s excited to join our team and mission.
- We know you’ve worked with Habitat in the past; what was your involvement before landing here?
My past experiences have ranged from working on job sites, to working with executive committees to reduce costs and designing homes (developed plans meet needs of larger families and included a storage area as part of the home designs to eliminate need for storage sheds), and even being on the Board of Directors. Regardless of my role, the experience has always been an incredible feeling of being part of a community that helps others.
- What made you want to join the Board at Habitat Lake Sumter?
Joining the Board allows me to become better involved with the community, as I am still somewhat new to the area, and also continue my involvement with an amazing organization.
- Now that you’re part of the team, what are your goals for what you’ll give and get out of this experience?
I hope to meet new people, whether other board members, executive committees, or volunteers, while sharing my talents and passion for people and building. I also hope to raise community awareness of volunteers needed for work days, fundraising opportunities, and share the stories of the people that are helped. Another goal is to engage all of the businesses in my network with volunteering and providing any support possible, whether it is professional services, financial support, or in kind donations.
SUMMERFIELD — James Collins sat in the shade on the porch of his Summerfield home and watched as two engineering students from France worked on a wooden ramp.
The addition of the ramp in April made the house more accessible for Collins and his wife, Deborah. Both have health problems that make climbing steps difficult at times.
“You can’t believe how important this ramp is for me and my wife,” James said. “I’m at a loss for words about this, and I’m never at a loss for words.”
The Collinses have lived in Summerfield for 13 years, and for most of that time they were able to make their own additions and repairs. But this time, they needed a little help.
The ramp was built as part of the Habitat for Humanity Lake-Sumter Florida’s Preserve and Repair program. It is just one of several ways Habitat is able to help families attain or keep affordable housing.
Since 1989, the Lake and Sumter Habitat has provided 265 homes for families in Lake and Sumter counties, said Danielle Stroud, Lake and Sumter Habitat director of development.
Stroud added that volunteers and sponsors are important elements in providing affordable housing for residents. Their donations of time, money and materials keep the costs down for new homes and repairs. The nonprofit has 4,000 volunteers who contribute 30,000 hours of volunteer labor annually.
This week, thousands of women will participate in Habitat for Humanity’s National Women Build Week. Lowe’s Home Improvement sponsors the national event with financial and volunteer support for hundreds of programs.
Locally, Habitat is planning to serve nine families in Lake and Sumter counties this week, including in Umatilla, Wildwood, Leesburg and Mount Dora, Stroud said.
“So far, we have 50 women set to volunteer,” Stroud said. “We still have some availability, so women are welcome to reach out to us.”
Anyone interested in participating can contact the office Tuesday or Wednesday for more information at habitatls.org.
Spring is in the air, and so is a record level of pollen and, for some states, unwelcome snow. Whatever your region or affliction, the time is right for some heavy-duty cleaning, and Habitat is here to help! Spring Cleaning is often associated with a full blitz of the house (including the garage, husbands out there) and many times there’s large items that need to go. Habitat for Humanity Lake Sumter has four ReStores that don’t just receive your donated items, we’ll even come get them – it’s free, and all you have to do is give us a call. Furniture, old (but functional) appliances, and electronics that you upgraded from on Black Friday but can’t bring yourself to get rid of; our ReStore truck teams will take it all, with some exceptions. To check if your item is a good fit, give your local ReStore a call, and if it looks good then they’ll get you in touch with the scheduling team to come get it.
Check out this article by Rodale Wellness: 14 Decluttering Secrets for Successful Spring Cleaning
Check out another article by Alex Harris: 21 Simple Hacks to Clean Your House the Smart Way
One of the lesser-known and more unique ways of supporting Habitat is through the Cars for Homes program. This option allows people who are upgrading their vehicles, downsizing their collection, or simply getting rid of a driveway accessory to donate the vehicle to Habitat, where it is sold and the proceeds support our mission. We don’t just accept cars, either! We can take donations of motorcycles, RV’s, trailers, golf carts, and work trucks. All donations through Cars for Homes receive a tax receipt which may qualify you for a nice deduction, and you’re helping lessen emissions and increase recycling value if you donate. If you’d like to get more info, or see if you have a qualifying item, you can check out the website here or give Cheryll a call at 352-483-0434 x141.
Check out the Cars for Homes Program: Cars = Homes