Habitat needs volunteer builders for Morgan, Menifee reconstruction

January 29, 2013

Greg Dike, right, executive director of the Morehead Area Habitat for Humanity group, helps build an interior wall for a house near Morehead with a group of volunteers from Lexington on Jan. 19.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity’s Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.

A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.

“When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area,” said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.

Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.

Morehead Area Habitat’s most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.

So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.

Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.

“They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing,” Dike said.

Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.

Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.

Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.

The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.

“I think there are a lot of people out there with skills,” Dike said. “We’re not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense.”

Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at buildwestliberty@gmail.com or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.

“It’s an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day,” James said. “Most people have really enjoyed it.”

That’s certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.

“I just love doing it,” said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.

“It’s fun, and I’ve learned so much,” Burns said. “I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn’t have time for that.”

Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work. “Plus, it helps make a difference in people’s lives,” Seithers said. “This is something I can do, so I’m doing it.”

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New Cities chart future with public participation

August 14, 2008

MOREHEAD – Like a lot of small towns, Morehead sometimes seemed to be stuck in the past, awkwardly dealing with the present and ill-prepared for the future.

Local leaders knew there was more potential in Morehead, but how could they realize it?

In 2005, then-Mayor Bradley Collins was president of the Kentucky League of Cities. The league had started the non-profit New Cities Institute. And the institute had developed a program to help communities identify and build on their strengths by bringing together key players and — most important — involving average citizens.

“You’ve got to bring the citizens into the equation, and leaders are often so reluctant to do that,” said Sylvia Lovely, the league’s chief executive officer and the force behind the New Cities Institute. “But at the end of the day, it’s the only thing that works.”

Collins decided Morehead would be the first Kentucky city to try the program.

The old Rowan County Courthouse has been converted into an arts center. Photo by Tom Eblen

The old Rowan County Courthouse has been converted into an arts center. Photo by Tom Eblen

“To be quite honest, I was afraid of it at first,” said Collins, who has retired after four terms as mayor. “I thought the people of Morehead and Rowan County wouldn’t go for it. I was in for a wonderful surprise.”

Madisonville followed Morehead, and a program will begin Aug. 27 in Inez. West Liberty will begin one later this year, and Paintsville and other towns are considering it.

Lovely is especially excited about the program in Inez. One reason is that Inez has some dynamic, young leaders. “They are just determined they are going to turn this town around,” she said.

Another is because Inez, in Martin County, has been a national symbol of Appalachia’s troubles and hopes since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson went there to launch his War on Poverty.

The New City program has a community’s citizens and leaders discuss issues, needs and goals around 12 principles that focus on civic pride, connections to place and people, and hopes and visions for the future.

It’s no magic formula, but Morehead leaders say it has been well worth the effort.

Rowan County is famous for its fractious history. The governor sent the militia there in the 1880s when local feuding got so out of hand that some legislators wanted to dissolve the county.

More recently, officials had worked pretty well together. But the big players – the city, the county, Morehead State University and St. Claire Regional Medical Center – didn’t communicate as much or as well as they needed to.

Of more concern was that government wasn’t especially transparent, and citizens didn’t speak up because they didn’t think officials would listen.

“I’m not proud of it,” Collins said, “but that’s the way it had always been done.”

That changed when local businesses put up money to sponsor the New City program, and large groups of citizens showed up at public meetings to have their say.

“It was a wonderful experience, even though I was afraid of it,” Collins said.

His successor, Mayor David Perkins, and Rowan County Judge Executive Jim Nickell said many New City initiatives, such as some downtown beautification projects, have yet to be accomplished because of tight budgets. “Hopefully, when the economy picks up they can start implementing some of the ideas,” Nickell said.

But the tone of civic conversation is much better, as is the working relationship between the key institutions and leaders.

“It was really a ­thoughtful, frank series of discussions,” said Morehead State President Wayne Andrews. “I came away thinking we learned a lot.”

“We’re still going to disagree sometimes, but we’re not at each other’s throats,” Perkins said. “People realize that now they have more of a chance for impact. And we have a much broader sense of what people in the community want.”

Morehead has made big strides recently, including: A new civic center opened in 2006. Major downtown projects include a new courthouse and library, and an arts center in the old courthouse. A joint city-county recycling program is making the local environment better — and making a profit. And there’s more city-county cooperation on water, sewer and emergency services as well as on home construction regulations.

City officials had meetings to listen to Morehead State students, who said they wanted more to do on weekends. As a result, the city helped attract a new sports bar and six-screen movie theater by subsidizing land acquisition.

People said they wanted the university to have more presence downtown. The university’s Center for Traditional Music is now on Main Street, and Andrews said officials are looking for similar opportunities.

“We really believe that if we work together and the community succeeds we all succeed,” Andrews said. “It has been a great story for our community.”