Welcome Home !

Bennington County Habitat for Humanity builds homes, stability, and strength for Southern Vermont families.

STORY BY
BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY
BENNINGTON COUNTY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY

It’s a crisp and bright afternoon in Manchester, and a crowd has gathered in front of a beautiful home on Jennifer Lane for an inspiring home dedication ceremony. A closely-knit family of four stands next to their newly-built house, grateful to be welcomed in by their friends, their loved ones, and the volunteers and staff members from Bennington County Habitat for Humanity. It’s the 34th home that Bennington County Habitat for Humanity has constructed since they opened their doors in 1996, and its sturdy and strong frame was built on an equally firm foundation of community-minded values. Bennington County Habitat for Humanity doesn’t just build homes—they empower families to become proud homeowners, strengthening the bonds that hold the Southern Vermont community together. This philosophy underpins every nail hammered and every wall raised, exemplifying their commitment to addressing the housing crisis with compassionate, sustainable solutions.

Bennington County Habitat for Humanity’s Executive Director, Cindy Luce, elaborates: “We are a home development organization that works with families to help them become homeowners, not renters. It’s a hand-up – not a handout. We oversee the construction of the homes, but the homeowners put in time, effort, and hard work through the entire process.”

Each year, during a six-week window that typically spans from March to April, applications come in from prospective families. The application process includes rigorous reviews from the Bennington County Habitat for Humanity Selection Committee, ensuring that all selected families can thrive in their new homes. “The families that we work with need to be between 30 and 80% of Bennington County’s Average Median Income,” notes Luce. The journey from applicant to homeowner is transformative. Selected families commit to 200 hours of sweat equity, literally and metaphorically laying the framework of their future homes. “They work alongside our volunteers, gaining an understanding of their house’s construction,” adds Luce. This process instills a deeper sense of ownership and connection to the homes. “People often think we give away houses, but that’s not true,” says Luce. “Families buy the house and pay a monthly mortgage. We do everything we can to keep the mortgage affordable. As part of the process, we apply for State funded or Habitat International funded grants.”

Bennington County Habitat for Humanity’s cause is supported by the generous donations of philanthropically-minded community members. From financial donations that fund construction and development projects to the newly established endowment fund, every contribution has a profound impact. Around $215,000 is required to build each house, excluding land costs, and each donation directly funds the construction of the homes. Bennington County Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore in Manchester bolsters their fundraising efforts while offering high-quality donated goods to the community. These contributions, which often come in the form of furniture from generous community members, plays a crucial role in funding their home development projects. Barbara Lappos, Manager of the ReStore, applies the knowledge that she gained during the decade that she ran the beloved kitchen and bath business, KitchenArt, in Manchester. As a longtime resident of Vermont, she is thankful to be able to channel her passion for community betterment into her work at the ReStore. In an effort to ensure the financial vitality of their organization, Bennington County Habitat for Humanity goes above and beyond to reduce building costs, leverage volunteer labor, and secure materials at reduced rates from community-minded local businesses, such as r.k. Miles in Manchester, among others. They also work closely with the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board to secure grants, significantly lowering the mortgage burden on families. Habitat’s role as a liaison and mortgage carrier makes the dream of homeownership achievable for low to middle-income families, who are able to thrive as secure and stable community members.

The larger Habitat for Humanity organization also plays a critical role, offering training, support, and resources that ensure maximum local impact. Although the mission of Habitat for Humanity is deeply rooted in Christian principles, they are inclusive and respectful of all beliefs. “We focus on love and service to all families, regardless of their religious background,” notes Luce.

On a local level, Bennington County Habitat for Humanity’s Board of Directors works tirelessly to efficiently facilitate their development projects. Their board, recently strengthened by President John Jacobi, is comprised of dedicated members with varying skill-sets, such as Keld Alstrup, an active volunteer, and Chris Ponessi of the Manchester-based firm Mance Engineering Partners, among others. Each member brings their unique skills and passion to the table, driving the organization forward. The volunteer program is the backbone of Habitat’s construction efforts. Community groups, churches, and local businesses, such as Berkshire Bank, have contributed their time and energy to the cause. While working on-site at the newest home on Jennifer Lane, Keld Alstrup shared the following: “We build houses so that people and families who work here in Southern Vermont can live here. We want families and children to thrive and have safe, affordable homes where they can live happy, healthy lives.”

Don Jackson, the full-time Construction Manager for Bennington County Habitat for Humanity leads a dedicated team of core volunteers. “I’m blessed to be able to be a part of this noble mission,” says Jackson. “I believe that the work that we are doing here at Habitat for Humanity is uplifting society on a global scale and helping people. I like to think of it as a matter of the heart. Everyone who is involved, from the staff to the volunteers, is involved in these projects because they care about helping people.”

Several of the volunteers who work with Jackson on construction projects are seasoned tradespeople with decades of experience in the construction industry. A prime example is Curt Merrow, who helped to coordinate the most recent home build on Jennifer Lane. A month after his retirement, he teamed up with Bennington County Habitat for Humanity as a volunteer. He works directly with volunteers, sharing his knowledge, teaching valuable worksite skills, and ensuring that all Habitat homes are built to high quality standards. “I’ve been blessed with a successful life,” says Merrow. “Working with Bennington County Habitat for Humanity is how I give back. The best part is seeing families getting a durable house to live in, and the camaraderie with my fellow volunteers is also amazing. It feels good to be able to play a part in helping the community.”

Habitat for Humanity’s Home Repair program, funded by grants like those from the Hunter Foundation, further exemplifies their commitment to community service. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program primarily focused on essential home improvement projects, such as accessibility ramps. Recently, they have expanded the program to include minor home repairs and indoor accessibility projects for income-qualified individuals and families.

Luce’s passion is palpable as she discusses upcoming projects and the ongoing need for community support and funding. “We’re always looking for more ways to reduce the mortgage burden for families.” To that end, Bennington County Habitat for Humanity’s reach now extends into Windham County. In the advent of West River Habitat for Humanity’s recent closure, they have begun working with established Habitat homeowners in the towns of Wilmington and Wardsboro. “We’re committed as an organization to continue working with all of our homeowners,” says Luce. “We don’t just build the homes and leave them on their own. It’s a lifelong relationship.”

Looking towards the future, Bennington County Habitat for Humanity aims to ramp up construction efforts, including the two homes that are currently planned for construction on Greenview Drive in Bennington. “We’re a small organization, but we aim to make as big of an impact as possible,” Luce states. “Vermont is projected to require thousands of new housing units in the coming years, and we want to play a part in helping people fulfill their dreams of homeownership.”

Tye Poquette, Office Administrator and Volunteer Coordinator for Bennington County Habitat for Humanity, echoes that sentiment, and adds that the personal fulfillment that he has found through his work is without parallel. “When you see the overwhelming community support at the home dedications and see the gratitude of the families who are moving into their new homes, it makes all of the hard work worth it.” Poquette adds that seeing community members of all ages rally together in support of the cause has brought new meaning to his work: “We’ve had students from Long Trail School, Burr & Burton Academy, and Stratton Mountain School come do volunteer work at the ReStore, help on community cleanup days, and on construction sites, and we’re looking forward to expanding that type of programming in the future. The way we see it, when a community comes together and builds together, they grow stronger together.”

ALL THE DETAILS:

vermonthabitat.org