WCU community supports Habitat’s return to county

Western Carolina University students, staff and faculty joined the effort this spring to help restore Habitat for Humanity International operations in Jackson County.

“From market viability studies to business plan development and from swinging hammers to applying the final layer of paint, the opportunity to get students involved with Habitat is rich with developmental experiences and high levels of engagement,” said Lane Perry, director of WCU’s Center for Service Learning.

At the request of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit organization committed to decent, safe and affordable housing for all, the Macon County affiliate assumed responsibility for serving Jackson County and last fall became Habitat for Humanity Macon/Jackson.

The merged organization holds the mortgages for the seven Habitat houses constructed in Jackson County as well as Habitat houses in Macon County. Payments from homeowners go into a revolving fund that allows the organization to build more homes, said Rick Westerman, executive director.

In addition to new home construction, the affiliate responds to the need for housing rehabilitation work for handicapped homeowners in such ways as building wheelchair ramps and making modifications to improve access. The work is funded by grants and donations, and receives support from Macon County.

“We feel that we can provide a significant and immediate benefit through the rehabilitation work at a modest cost using our group of skilled volunteers” said Pete Drevas, outreach director for Habitat for Humanity Macon/Jackson.

To develop a better understanding of Jackson County’s needs, Habitat for Humanity Macon/Jackson leaders have been working with the county’s board of commissioners and chamber of commerce and are adding Jackson County residents to the board of directors, said Dave Jones, president of the affiliate’s board of directors. Jennifer Cooper, assistant director of the Center for Service Learning, has agreed to serve as a board member and is excited about the opportunity.

“I am thrilled that Habitat for Humanity has a presence in Jackson County again,” said Cooper. “There is a huge need for decent, affordable housing in our area, and having access to a resource like Habitat for Humanity will really make a difference in the lives of residents who need homes or home repairs. The partnership between WCU and Habitat for Humanity already has been beneficial for both groups, and I look forward to watching the collaboration grow and help more people.”

One of the first priorities the merged organization identified was a need to re-open the Habitat re-sale story in Jackson County. In response, WCU students working with Bill Richmond, associate professor of entrepreneurship, this spring studied the viability of and developed a business plan for a new Jackson County Re-Sale Store to support the organization. The students – Wes Cook, a student from Hendersonville who recently completed his degree in entrepreneurship; Randy Pressley, a senior from Asheville studying entrepreneurship and pre-dentistry; and Tiffany Baldwin, a senior from Waynesville majoring in entrepreneurship – examined the demographics of a potential donor and customer base and researched possible locations for the store in Sylva and Cullowhee.

In addition, Richmond’s students assessed feasibility of a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity that would ultimately serve and work with Jackson County.

The experiences offered students a hands-on opportunity related to restarting a business and developing an organization that will positively affect the community, said Richmond.

“There is no better way to learn entrepreneurship than by doing it,” he said.

Westerman said donations are being accepted for the affiliate’s re-sale store in Franklin until a store is opened in Jackson County. Pick-ups of re-sale donations of household items and construction materials are available on Thursday and Friday.

For more information about Western Carolina University’s Center for Service Learning, visit servicelearning.wcu.edu. For more information about WCU’s entrepreneurship academic programs and Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, visit entrepreneurship.wcu.edu.

To volunteer at Habitat for Humanity Macon/Jackson, contact Pete Drevas, outreach director, at 828-369-3716. To schedule pick-up of re-sale donations, call 828-524-5273. Tax-deductible monetary donations may be sent to Habitat for Humanity, Macon/Jackson, P.O. Box 1585, Franklin, N.C. 28744 or made online at www.maconcountyhabitat.org.