Habitat for Humanity – The Early Years 1989-1995
Fresh out of Seminary school, Stan Cushing was a young minister who thought it was a good idea to have Habitat for Humanity in Lowell MA. Other clergy he approached were not interested in this idea. They told him he was a young idealist and in a few years he would soon learn how hard, if not impossible, it would be. Undeterred, Stan met with Don Holt, minister at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Chelmsford MA, and convinced the older Pastor to join him. The goal was to meet every Wednesday for a year and have meetings with anyone who they could schedule time with. From the fall of 1989 to the spring of 1990, they met with newspapers, local businesses, and law offices. During this time they also went to Albany NY for a training by Habitat for Humanity International on how to set up an affiliate.
In the spring of 1990 Stan and Don held a launch meeting attended by 80 people. As Methodist pastors, Stan and Don wanted to be sure this was not thought of as a Methodist project, so they strategically reached out the First United Baptist Church in Lowell to host the meeting. A steering committee evolved from this first meeting with Leon Berry nominating people for a Board of Directors. The organization became an official 501c3 non-profit on February 18 1991. Judy Jergens served as president in 1992, Philip Belanger was president in 1993, and Peter Sweeney was president 1994-1995.
Don Dooley, a member of the First United Baptist Church, was an early leader of the group. In August 1990 he and Monika Patience of the Central Congregational Church in Chelmsford visited a build site sponsored by Habitat for Humanity of North Central MA in Leominster MA to get a first-hand view of what is involved in a build project. Don and his wife Pru Dooley continued their involvement with the young affiliate in the early 1990s. Don was involved in getting work permits from the city of Lowell. Pru was involved in fundraising events and providing lunches at the work sites.
According to Pru, the fundraisers in the early days of 1990-1991 were turkey dinners at the First United Baptist Church. The cost of entry was $6.50. Apple pies were on sale for $3.50, including the pie plate. The founders also sold placemats comprised of business cards from local construction related businesses. The ads were sold by Don and another early organizer Sister Claire Cayer. The first dinner raised $1200, and the 2nd dinner – attended by 150 people – raised $2500. Young hockey players from University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) helped serve.
During the early days 1994-1997, the first three projects (33 Mead Street, 45 Walnut Street, and 50 West 4th Street) were rehabilitation projects in Lowell. (All Habitat for Humanity of Greater Lowell projects were rehab projects until 2002 when the first new house was built.) Pru Dooley recalls the dedication of 45 Walnut Street in March 1995. Steve Panagiotakos, MA State Representative at the time who helped with getting permits from the city of Lowell, and Paul Tsongas, former US Senator from Lowell, were both at the dedication. Pru remembers Paul Tsongas showing up in paint clothes, thinking he was going to be put to work!
Years 1998 – 2003
Since its founding in 1991 and through 2004 HFHGL operated without an Executive Director and paid staff. During these years the various committees and board presidents (Ernie Middlemiss from 1995 to 1998, Roy Peters from 1998-2000, and Pierre de Villiers from 2000-2003) did the “heavy lifting” of acquiring the property and overseeing the build projects. During these years five rehabilitation projects were completed in Lowell, Billerica, and Westford, and HFHGL’s first new house was completed in 2002.
223 and 225 Summer Street, Lowell – dedicated September 1998
This property was acquired in 1996 and took nearly 2 years to rehab. Ernie Middlemiss described the house as a “burned out shell” and that he could see through the upper floors to the sky from the entrance. It was originally a 3 story single family house, but the building committee determined that it would be easier to rehab into two units. Under the supervision of Roy Peters, volunteers from Harvard, BU, BC, Wellesley and local church groups worked over 10,000 hours to remove the siding and the roof, gut the interior and build new interior walls, and replace the insulation, wiring and windows. The house also needed a new heating system and plumbing. The completed duplex housed a family of 7 downstairs and a family of 4 upstairs.
16 Nichols Street, Lowell – dedicated July 2000
This two story, 4 bedroom house was the long-time residence of Elfrieda Poore who donated it to the Immanuel Baptist Church of Lowell who in turn donated it to HFHGL. Pierre de Villiers recalls that step one was the removal of cat-smelling clutter that filled an entire dumpster. Under the supervision of Jim Comeau, the house was gutted in August 1999. Seven hundred volunteers worked over 9000 hours, primarily on Saturdays and Tuesdays. One member of the Tuesday “Over the Hill Gang” Ned McCaffrey had been volunteering for HFHGL since 1991, the year of its founding. Another long-time member of the Tuesday crew was Bill Murphy, who also volunteered for HFH in Florida in the winter. One of the more memorable tasks done by the Tuesday crew was the pouring of a huge retaining wall during the hottest day of the year. In July 2000 a family of 8 moved into 16 Nichols Street.
44 Barrington Street, Lowell – dedicated March 2002
Father Charles Beausoleil of St. Joseph the Worker Shrine found this Lowell house for HFHGL. Work on this rehab project was started in early 2001. The house needed all new walls, new siding, new plumbing, electrical and insulation and a new porch.
22 Glenside Avenue, Billerica – dedicated September 2002
This was HFHGL’s first new construction and first property outside of Lowell. In August 2001 HFHGL purchased the property for $1.00 from the town of Billerica. The work was a 4 way partnership between HFHGL, the town of Billerica, Shawsheen Valley Regional Technical School in Billerica, and Cisco Systems Foundation. Seventy junior and seniors from Shawsheen worked on the construction of the house from September 2001 to September 2002. In the fall of 2002 a single mother of 4 children from Lowell moved into this beautiful 4 bedroom Colonial.
9 Austin Road, Billerica – dedicated February 2003
This house was acquired from the town of Billerica at the same time as the Glenside property, and the building permit was issued in December 2001. Under the supervision of construction manager Steve Measmer, an impressive amount of work was completed in one year, starting with clearing a jungle of vines – and finding a car in the backyard. Assisted by professionals who did the foundation, plumbing, and electrical work, the volunteer crew added a kitchen and bath in the rear, reconfigured the downstairs for a living room and one bedroom and the upstairs for 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom, and poured new floor in the basement. A group of women from MIT’s Alternative Spring Break program assisted the volunteer and professional team. A single mother of 3 girls from Billerica who was attending Middlesex Community College while working full time was selected for this home. She later served as an advocate for the next Billerica house completed in 2015.
Pierre de Villiers recalls that both Billerica projects had to conform to the LIP (Local Initiative Program) guidelines set by the State of Massachusetts in order for the houses to count towards Billerica’s affordable housing quota. LIP guidelines also required that HFHGL make a concerted effort to reach out to minority families in all towns of their coverage area. That meant posting flyers and contacting town officials, churches and schools as part of the family selection process. And Billerica required that one of the families be a current Billerica resident.
7 Orchard Street, Westford – completed 2003
HFHGL was approached by individuals in Westford to rehab this property for the owner, who was living in the house. The project was selected with the goal of cultivating a relationship with the town of Westford. In addition to some major infrastructure repairs such as the septic system, the house received some cosmetic repairs.
Another key development during these years was the introduction of a website in 2001. In early 1999 Pierre de Villiers proposed having a website to Roy Peters (then president) and worked with 2 students from Middlesex Community College to create the first prototype. The first website, hosted on Pierre’s personal website, allowed for the submission of volunteer interest forms online. Steve Measmer built a mail server in his basement at the end of 1999, and the first e-mail to volunteers soon followed. Within a few months virtually all volunteer communication was done via e-mail.
May 2000 marked the five year anniversary for the “Take a Hike for Humanity” fundraiser. 300 hikers from 6 local affiliates hiked up Mount Monadnock. The 36 hikers from HFHGL raised $5027.
During its first 12 years, the Greater Lowell affiliate focused on rehabilitating existing properties. That focus changed in 2003 with a new house built in Billerica. (See History Write-up 1998-2003.) From 2003 on, the houses were all new construction. The years 2005-2007 were also notable for the hiring of the affiliate’s first paid staff. The first Executive Director Suzanne Frechette was hired in April 2005 and served as ED until June 2007. The office was in downtown Lowell in a donated office space across from a Dunkin Donuts. The affiliate’s first major fundraiser was an event at the Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell which raised $5000. Ernie Middlemiss served his second 3 year term as president of the board from 2003- 2005, and Bill Mersch served as president from 2006-2009. Another factor contributing to the ramp in the number of projects was an online volunteer system that allowed for an exponential increase in the number of volunteers. June 2005 was a busy month for HFHGL with the dedication of both Harmony Way in Lowell and Baker Ave in Concord.
Harmony Way, Lowell – dedicated June 2005
In the summer of 1998, property off Charles Street in the Back Central section of Lowell was offered to HFHGL by Cormier Construction Corporation of Andover MA. Prior to accepting the offer, HFHGL asked engineering students from UMass Lowell to prepare a feasibility and cost analysis study on developing the site as part of their senior project. (Their estimates were in fact very close to the actual costs of the site preparation.) HFHGL took title in December 1998. The Site Committee spent the next 2+ years developing plans that would meet the City of Lowell’s building requirements. The building crew broke ground on November 2001. One of the first tasks was to demolish a set of garages in various stages of decay. During the construction Home Depot donated materials, and Cisco donated funding and volunteers. Cisco also named the property “Harmony Way”. Among the other groups who regularly worked the site were students from Harvard, who also made a financial contribution, and volunteers from Crescent House, a Lowell organization that works with veterans. After three and a half years, 3 duplexes were completed. The dedication of the first duplex was in June 2005. Paul LaMothe, Chairman of the Building Committee, presented a toolbox to a single father of two young children who moved from a housing project near Boston to his new home where his kids could play in the back yard. Three years after the six families moved in, the island in the cul-de-sac was cultivated by the Northern District Garden Club and the Lowell Parks Department.
147 and 149 Baker Ave, Concord – dedicated June 2005
The two story clapboard duplex at 147 and 149 Baker Ave is part of a neighborhood of seven affordable three bedroom homes. In a Boston Globe article dated June 7 2005, a member of the board of the Concord Housing Trust described the development of the neighborhood as follows: “The land belonged to the state of Massachusetts. The state had allocated the parcel for the widening of Route 2, but they never did anything with it. Once the land went up for auction, the Concord Housing Trust worried that commercial developers would want to build as many houses as they could on the land. The Trust could never match the bids of wealthy private developers, but we might be able to purchase the land from the state by promising affordable housing.” The Concord Housing Trust purchased the parcel and built five homes in 2004. The Trust sold one of the lots to HFHGL. The ground for the 147/149 duplex was broken in August 2004, with the dedication on June 26 2005. Between the two partner families there were six boys, all under the age of 12. One of the families moved from a two bedroom apartment in Lowell “with brown water stains on the ceiling, peeling wallpaper, and a hole in the back porch that swallowed Daisy the cat”. (This quote was from a follow-up article in the Boston Globe, dated December 22 2005.)
26 and 32 Governors Drive, Reading – dedicated June 2007
The two homes on Governors Drive were built in cooperation with the Town of Reading and HFHGL under the MA Local Initiative Program (LIP) guidelines, which required that the homes remain low income in perpetuity. The land was valued at $500,000, but HFHGL acquired the land for $1.00 and a contribution of $59,000 to the Town of Reading for new curbs and sidewalks on Governors Drive. Donations came from Winchester Savings Bank, Tocci Construction, and Peerless Insurance. The building crew broke ground in June 2006 and removed 100+ trees. Volunteers put in over 5000 hours on Tuesday mornings and Saturdays to build the 4 bedroom homes. The dedication was held on June 23 2007, and the two families moved in shortly thereafter. One of the families moved from Somerville to 26 Governors Drive with their 2 sons. The family in 32 Governors Drive had immigrated from Poland in 2001. They were living in Reading in a house where all 4 children shared the same bedroom. The mother learned about Habitat through the ESL teacher at one of the elementary schools in Reading where she was taking classes. In a newspaper write-up on the dedication, the father said, “We moved to the United States intending to find a place to settle down and offer our children a better opportunity for the future. We never expected things to go so well. This house is a big step towards achieving our dream.”