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Published: Monday, 10/29/2007

New 'Habitat' chief to nail in agency's building efforts

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sarah Jo Twitchell, executive director of Maumee Valley Habitat for Humanity, coordinates the construction of homes. Sarah Jo Twitchell, executive director of Maumee Valley Habitat for Humanity, coordinates the construction of homes.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo

There's a bright neon pink construction hat hanging from an office bookshelf of Maumee Valley Habitat For Humanity's new executive director, Sarah Jo Twitchell.

Suspended between her desktop computer and the office door, the hard hat would be an easy grab for Mrs. Twitchell if she ever needs to slap on a tool belt and dash to a construction site.

And with Habitat building 12 houses each year from the ground up in Lucas County, the scenario is not so far-fetched.

In fact, earlier this month the 47-year-old mother of two was out on a project installing windows and portions of a roof as she helped volunteers from the area's legal community build a three-bedroom house on Upton Avenue in Toledo's central city.

Yet her day-to-day responsibilities at the nonprofit organization, an affiliate of Habitat For Humanity International, centers more on her cerebral and managerial abilities than carpentry know-how.

Mrs. Twitchell explained that the hot-pink hard hat, complete with black marker scribbles and words of encouragement from old colleagues, "is just for display."

"I'm glad that one of the [job] requirements is not that I know how to swing a hammer," she said with a smile. "That's not my forte."

Mrs. Twitchell is responsible for coordinating most everything involved in building Habitat homes for low-income families - from providing the financing to pulling together both the volunteer and hired skilled labor.

The homes are typically built for working families with income levels between 25 and 65 percent of the area's average income, Mrs. Twitchell said. The median family income for Lucas County was $42,296 in 2006, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

And the families do not receive the homes for free. They must first invest "sweat equity" hours alongside the Habitat volunteers building their house, and afterward they become responsible for paying the material and skilled-labor costs of the home through a Habitat-financed, no-interest mortgage.

Monthly payments are typically limited to no more than 30 percent of the family's income, and often come to about $300 to $500 a month, Mrs. Twitchell said.

Under such generous terms, the default rate has been zero.

"So far we haven't foreclosed on anyone," she said. "We work real hard with the families to make sure that doesn't happen."

Habitat's operations are largely funded through grants and donations from foundations, corporations, individuals, and houses of worship, Mrs. Twitchell said. The organization receives occasional grant funding from government sources and Habitat International.

Mrs. Twitchell replaces Chuck Thayer, who retired in August after eight years as executive director.

Mr. Thayer said he believes the greatest challenge facing Habitat, like that of any nonprofit operating in the economic realities of northwest Ohio, is securing enough money to meet the staggering needs.

"There is no question about the overwhelming need for affordable housing," he said. "There is just an inexhaustible need to fill ... and the challenge is finding the resources to address that need."

Mrs. Twitchell's career in social work spans more than two decades. She came to Habitat after having served as director of Toledo Metropolitan Mission's Love In The Name of Christ program, which networks local churches to provide various social services.

In 2001 she established Suitably Attired, a nonprofit organization that gives free professional dress clothes to area women for job interviews and work. Prior to that, she founded a college retention program at University of Toledo for students on welfare with children.

While the home construction business is a different variety of work for Mrs. Twitchell, she said she considers the goals of both her new and old jobs similar.

"Owning a home is one of the major pathways for families to develop assets in the U.S. - that along with owning your own business or postsecondary education," she said. "So for me, it's another way for them to really develop their own financial assets and create change in the family for the next generations."

Contact JC Reindl at: jreindl@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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