December 3 marked Susan Martin’s 20 year anniversary of non-profit service to our community. She was first recruited as a board member of Mountain Country Habitat for Humanity shortly after moving here from Nashville, Tennessee in 1992. While serving as chairperson of the Fundraising Committee, Ms. Martin paired the grand opening of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum with a fundraiser to build the “Believe it or Not House” in Stone County. Guests at the grand opening had the opportunity to purchase an assortment of building materials for the home. Tony Orlando purchased the foundation, and Linda and Dwight Sprague purchased the roof. In August, volunteers from across the Midwest built the house in 4 ½ days making it, up to that time, the fastest non-professional blitz-build by a Habitat for Humanity affiliate.
When Ms. Martin left the Ripley’s museum to spend more time with her young children, members of the Habitat board approached her about taking over the executive director’s position. Martin recalls, “They assured me that the job would require no more than 20 hours a week. The first week on the job, I put in almost 80 hours. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
What Ms. Martin “got herself into” was raising funds for and overseeing the building of 27 new homes (five of which were built in five days), and refurbished nine houses providing safe, decent and affordable homes for working, low-income families Taney and Stone County. Fundraisers included two pro-celebrity golf tournaments in which George Brett, Darrell Porter, Robin Yount, Leon Spinks, Roy Clark, Andy Williams and Glen Campbell participated. Several million dollar hole-in-one contests, “Run Wild for Habitat”, a seven year annual walk/run, two fine art auctions, a celebrity roast for Steve Weyher, and several year-long fundraising campaigns including “Bring 2000 in with a Bang” kicked-off by Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller.
“When we disaffiliated from Habitat for Humanity in November 2006 and became Mountain Country Homes of Hope, the board and I were concerned that it would affect donations and the community’s response to our efforts. But with all the changes the new Habitat International regime was making we felt we had no choice if we wanted to maintain the integrity and principles upon which we were founded. The positive response from the community was amazing. Many local business owners who had been moderate contributors said that they were even more compelled to donate to our efforts because we were now solely community-focused.” The Branson-Hollister Rotary Club was one of the first organizations to step forward with a show of support. In spring 2007 Homes of Hope built the second Rotary-sponsored house, but the first house under the Mountain Country Homes of Hope name. A contingent of Marines from Ft. Leonard Wood helped build the house for the Friend family. They completed it in five days. According to homeowner Tonja Friend, “It truly proved to be a home of hope.”
When the economy collapsed in 2008, donations and grants large enough to build houses became scarcer, as did applications for homes. Martin states, “The government was handing out all sorts of no-obligation-attached freebies which was contrary to our mission. Working families who would have qualified for our program weren’t comfortable making a commitment to homeownership because there was always the possibility that they might have to relocate to find work. After so many years of successful homeowner partnerships, the board of directors knew we needed to find alternative service opportunities.” Thus the ReBuilding Hope for Seniors program was created.
ReBuilding Hope for Seniors offers home maintenance and repair and quality-of-life improvements to seniors citizens (60 and older) who own their home and are living on a fixed income. Most of the requests are for services that older homeowners can no longer do for themselves: cleaning gutters, caulking windows, replacing a sink, toilet, door, hot water heater, minor roof repairs, furnace and air conditioner repair, etc. “However,” adds Martin, “most of our projects have been installing grab bars and handicap ramps. Our seniors’ quality-of-life needs are not be adequately addressed, and we’re determined to do something to help. Watching a senior wheel his chair down a handicap ramp under his own power can be just as emotional as handing keys to a home over to a new homeowner.”
When Martin is asked about memorable moments over the past 20 years, her first response is always about the families who have touched her life. “I’ve seen families break out of a poverty cycle that had been indicative of their personal history for years. I’ve witness heads of households who had never owned anything new, much less a home, take that leap of faith for themselves and their children. They realize that they didn’t need to be part of the entitled; they had the strength of empowerment and they seized it. Probably the most rewarding experiences are seeing the children of our partner families graduate from high school and then graduate from college. It’s a little daunting to realize that I’ve been with Homes of Hope long enough to have seen them grow up, but the joy I feel over their accomplishments as well as those of their parents is beyond words.”
“The past twenty years has been comprised of many memorable experiences. I have lost friends that were an integral part of my life, my job as executive director and our ministry: Sandy Steward, Ed Muckey, Henry Allred, Norm Cook and Steve Harris are just a few. There are many people in the community for whom I have great admiration and respect.” Martin grins, “People who will still take my calls when I ask for help. These people are reminders that I have been very blessed personally as well as in my work. I have great appreciation for the business people who continue to give when it would be financially more feasible for them to say no, and for the individuals who donate their time and talents; neither of which you can put a price. However, there is one particular incident that will be forever burned in my heart. In 2003 we built The Homeland America House for Jason Brown and his family. Colonel Dick Hobbs from Ft. Leonard Wood brought down 25 volunteer service personnel from the five branches of the armed forces. Their job was to build the Brown’s house in five days or less. Steve Weyher, who was then general manager of Golden Corral, had been at the build site since 5 a.m. setting up breakfast. He had donated an American flag and a flag pole so we could raise the colors each morning before building commenced. The Lennon Sisters had graciously agreed to come out that first morning, before dawn, to sing the National Anthem. One of the Marines raised the flag, and just as the Lennon Sisters began to sing the first few words of The Star Spangled Banner in that melodious harmony so unique to them, the sun rose just over the hill behind them and bathed the entire scene in a glorious golden light. It was an awe-inspiring experience; unstaged and unplanned. On that morning we saw God smile.”