When Stephany Booth fled an abusive husband, she went to the only place she could afford, her father’s house, where she shared one bedroom with her three children. Given her modest income as a grocery store employee, she never thought she would ever have her own place to live—much less own her own home. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.
Stephany worked for a pushy deli manager who kept telling her about something called Habitat for Humanity. The manager insisted that not one, but two of her employees had gotten homes through Habitat. “I didn’t believe it was a real thing,” Stephany said. “Honestly, I just applied to shut her up.”
When Stephany attended the first orientation, she quickly realized that getting a home through Habitat for Humanity was, in fact, “a real thing that actually happened.”
Heather Lafferty (MBA, ’05), current CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver, was also surprised to learn that Habitat for Humanity existed, or needed to exist at all. She remembers sitting in Sunday school when she was in middle school. The daughter of a family who’d secured a home through Habitat came to talk at her church. “It was the first time I remember really thinking about how other kids didn’t have a home,” Heather said. “My middle-class privileged bubble kind of burst.”
Heather’s parents always modeled philanthropy and were committed to sharing what they could. One summer they encouraged her to join a youth trip to South Carolina to help a community rebuild after a hurricane. She remembers one family who hadn’t had a working toilet for three years. “That leaves an impression on a person,” she said. These family trips might have led her to nonprofit work, although she did not realize the importance of those early experiences at the time.
Did you know Habitat is also a mortgage company?
It shouldn’t be surprising, however, that Heather ended up at Habitat for Humanity, an organization that partners with local people to improve or find their home. “We believe home is the foundation,” she explains. She considers herself lucky, because as a child, she had a home. “It certainly gave me the ability to focus on other things like friends, school, sports, dreaming … the importance of thinking about my future,” she said.
That future eventually included getting an MBA from CU Denver, where Heather was one of many graduate students who also worked full time. “For working professionals, the program was nimble,” she said. Interestingly, Heather’s career path is actually considered unique—because many people who work in the nonprofit sector do not pursue an MBA. “My philosophy, nonprofit or for profit, is business principles are business principles,” she asserts. “Running a successful business looks the same.” Under her tenure, Habitat has expanded to include more home improvement projects in order to help current homeowners make their homes safer and elevate their neighborhoods.
Heather wants people to understand that Habitat doesn’t just give people homes. The organization builds new homes for families with low incomes, yes, but it is also a mortgage company. When a family gets pre-qualified for a Habitat loan, they go shopping for a house from Habitat for Humanity’s inventory. They choose their home, including its location, size, and style. “There’s a real dignity in the process,” she said.
Stephany agrees. In fact, she thinks the system of securing a Habitat home is empowering. “They’re not just giving you a house and saying good luck with that,” she said. “They’re giving you all the tools you need to help you succeed.” In classes offered by Habitat, Stephany learned all about escrow and other financial planning. She learned everything from how to be a good neighbor to how to repair drywall.
Stephany also learned the value of sweat equity. Every Habitat homeowner needs to complete a certain number of hours working to build other people’s homes, as well as their own. “Not many people can say they built their own house,” she said. But she was on the building site every Wednesday once they broke ground on her new home, and this enabled her to really know everything about her home. “Thank goodness I was there the day they were doing the peepholes. The guy marking it was about 6’4”,” she said. She asked for her peephole to be custom-drilled for her eye level. “It’s the lowest one in our row of houses,” she points out happily.
Home for the holidays
Home is particularly important during the holidays, literally and figuratively. It is, of course, a time when everyone should ideally have shelter. Shelter is a basic human right, and a vital aspect of human health and safety. On that note, Stephany shares what so many survivors of domestic violence know: “It’s the most terrifying thing a woman will ever do—leave that husband.” Safe in her own house, which her children and granddaughter call home, she realizes her story has a happy ending. “I really believe that telling my story will help other people be brave,” she said.
Leaving safety aside for a moment, home also carries symbolic weight. Stephany loves Christmas lights, for example. When she was at her father’s house, she couldn’t do much in the way of decorating. Even if you’re renting, there’s only so much you can do. “I am a Christmas lights fanatic,” she admits. “I actually had solar panels installed a year and a half ago, so I can have all the lights I want.”
Now that Stephany specializes in cake decorating, there’s another important home improvement she’s made—in the form of a custom kitchen island. “That’s also something you can’t do if you have an apartment,” she said.
For Heather, the holidays are somewhat more understated. “We’re not a grand gesture kind of family,” she said. “The importance around the holidays is that it’s our time of being together,” she said. As the mother of two little boys, she talks to them about how lucky they are to have a good home.
That is something Heather wishes for all families. She recounts the story of a young man she met recently who moved eight times during his first eight years of school. Finally, he moved into a Habitat home right before high school, which gave him the opportunity to care about school, to make friends, to envision a future for himself. “He’s a first-year college student on a full-ride scholarship to Yale,” she said. “It’s a real blessing to know Habitat had a small part to play in that.”