Habitat for Humanity Kent State builds new home for local family

Habitat for Humanity of Portage County construction manager Brittian Bollenbacher teaches Kent State volunteers how to evenly roll paint onto the living room walls. Feb. 2, 2019.

Michael Indriolo

Kent State volunteers stood silently among shop vacs, power tools and paint cans. While some prayed for a safe and productive work day, they each bowed their heads and folded their hands. After those brief, quiet moments, the room erupted: Volunteers scurried for garbage bags and paint rollers as they began a long day’s work on a home they’ve built from the ground up.

Kent State’s Habitat for Humanity chapter, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Portage County, began building an entirely new home last August and plans to move a family in at the end of the month.

“A lot of people like seeing the progress on the house,” said Stephanie Nguyen, the president of Kent State’s chapter. “We only come monthly, so big changes happen every time we come back. It’s crazy.”

Beyond seeing progress on this project, Nguyen said she values her role in the organization because helping people in difficult housing situations feels almost indescribable.

“It’s very rewarding, and I hate saying that because it sounds so selfish,” she said. “But when you ask anyone in Habitat what their favorite part about Habitat is, it’s just that feeling you get after you know you’ve done something good. Selfish or not, it’s true.”

Along with Nguyen, various Kent State students gave their time to what Nguyen said is the student organization’s biggest project to date. Sophomore Spanish translation and economics major Mallory Woods said she appreciated witnessing the house take shape.

“It’s pretty incredible to see the progress from the first semester,” Woods said. “The house was basically just a scaffolded structure, and now it’s an actual dwelling place. So yeah, it’s been incredible to see. And it’s really cool to see all the volunteers that come on a weekly basis.”

The Habitat for Humanity community made Woods feel immediately included, she said.

“Everyone has been very welcoming,” Woods said. “It’s been a unique opportunity to build and do things that I don’t normally get the chance to do.”

Similarly, sophomore architecture major Sarah Audet said she volunteers with Habitat because she enjoys helping people.

Habitat is particularly rewarding, she said, because it presents volunteers the opportunity to get to know those they’re volunteering for.

In this particular build project, Kent State volunteers worked alongside the Purkiss family. They work alongside the family rather than for them because, per Habitat for Humanity protocol, each parent in the family must work on the home for at least 250 hours.

Soon-to-be homeowner Tiffany Purkiss tapped her paint-stained brush against a pan, letting excess globs of white paint drip off before she began flicking it against what would be in only a few months’ time a door to her bathroom.

“Now, our four children have a place to really call their home,” she said.

The Purkiss family lived with relatives until it got in touch with Habitat for Humanity of Portage County last summer. After an intensive approval process, the family members worked with Habitat to transform what was a heavily forested plot of land into their brand-new home.

“July was when we had to clear the land because this was a huge forest with probably about 12 big pine trees,” Purkiss said.

After the team cleared out those trees, it laid the home’s foundation and began erecting its structure. Fast forward nearly 10 months, and the Purkiss family will finally hold the keys to its new home on April 27, when Habitat plans to hold a dedication ceremony.

The family can’t wait to move in, Purkiss said, but because the project has hit so many roadblocks since it began, she remains wary.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “I’m trying not to get anxious. I’m trying to just continue to be patient. I don’t want to get anxious and then this last 30 days, or however long we have, end up turning into a nightmare.”

After living in a house with relatives, she also wonders how her family will adjust to a space of its own.

“We’re going from living with four other people to just us,” Purkiss said. “I think not only for myself, but for my children as well, it will be definitely something that they’ll have to get used to.”

Despite those concerns, her husband, Xylon Purkiss, said he looks forward to finally moving in.

“To finally have a ‘home’ home that my kids can grow up in,” he said. “We’ve been in a couple different apartments, with my parents for a while, and we’ve always been like, ‘OK this is a temporary situation,’ but now we’re going to know that we’ll always have a home.”

The family has appreciated how Habitat for Humanity has considered their opinions and preferences throughout the entire build process, he said.

“It’s a long process with Habitat, but I understand how that goes,” he said.

“Everybody is volunteers. We have to do our sweat equity hours, so I understand how long the process has taken, but at the same time, we’ve been involved the whole time. They’ve been asking our opinions. They’ve really delivered.”

Between their multiple jobs and other responsibilities, squeezing in those hours can be challenging, the Purkiss’ said, but their involvement in the process is essential to both them and Habitat.  

Habitat for Humanity does not give out free homes. It operates more like a bank in that it loans families all the resources necessary to build a home, and works with each family to arrange a payable mortgage.

“It’s a 20-year, interest-free loan,” said Brittian Bolenbacher, Habitat for Humanity of Portage County’s construction manager. “So most our families are paying less to buy their home than they would pay to rent. An average house payment might be $400.”

That method, he said, helps people more than pure charity would.

Habitat seeks to help those who struggle within the U.S. socioeconomic system, he said, and through requiring clients to invest time into their home’s construction, Habitat fosters a mutual partnership.

“We need to get involved in their lives and come alongside them,” Bolenbacher said.“I think Habitat steps in to try to help people who are trying to get ahead by not giving them a handout, but by giving them a hand to help them up.

“So then their kids already have that hand up that can come from their parents.”

Additionally, he said, Habitat-built homes often appraise for more than they cost to build.

Because Habitat arranges partnerships with businesses like Lowe’s, a house that may have cost $60,000 to $80,000 to build can appraise for $100,000 to $120,000, he said.

Habitat for Humanity is able to build houses relatively inexpensively in part because of its own volunteers. Mary Paton began volunteering with Habitat a little more than a year ago.

“I have always wanted to be able to give back in some way when I retired,” Paton said. “So I gave it a try and loved it from the first day. It was great.”

She used to manage her own apartments, she said, so all the painting and repairing she did in that career fits in at Habitat. From the very first day, Paton said, she felt overwhelmingly welcome.

“I walk in the door and everybody goes, ‘Hi!’ like I’m family or something,’” she said. “It was wonderful.”

Wilbur Dobbins, also retired, is another member. He has been a volunteer with Habitat since 2006.

Throughout his time volunteering, he said his favorite moments come from his interactions with those he’s volunteering for.

“Meeting a lot of people that need homes, and that’s where it comes from: seeing them when they get the keys to the house,” Dobbins said. “That’s the biggest thing that I enjoy.

“There have been quite a few places that I’ve been where people just look at you, and they appreciate you so much.”

While Paton touched up the trim around one bedroom’s windows, Tiffany Purkiss toiled away in the adjacent bathroom.

As she stroked her brush against that bathroom door, she reflected on this pivotal point in her life.

Purkiss said she feels grateful to Habitat because this process taught her skills that she’ll need to maintain her home.

“Once you do become that homeowner, you at least have some knowledge on how to fix something,” she said. “It really does mean a lot.”

What means even more, she said, is that, thanks to Habitat for Humanity, her family can proudly live in a home it’s earned.

“It means everything, honestly,” she said. “They gave us the opportunity to be homeowners.”

Michael Indriolo covers social services. Contact him at [email protected].