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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Habitat’s ‘A Brush with Kindness’ program helps homeowners do small repairs

By Kaye Hult

Catherine Morales-Lash appreciates the new windows in her trailer home.  With her disabilities, she was unable to make such repairs. 

About a year ago, she saw a TV ad on a new Habitat for Humanity program, “A Brush with Kindness,” that helps homeowners do small repairs to their home exteriors.  She called, and Habitat came to her aid.

Habitat in Idaho
Habitat volunteers help with "A Brush with Kindness"

Habitat for Humanity has made a name for itself since the 1970s by building new houses for people who cannot afford to buy one on their own.  Recipients put in some of the work—sweat equity—and pay Habitat for the homes through affordable, no-interest payments over a long period.

Eula Hickam, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of North Idaho, said that Habitat nationally now builds about 6,000 homes a year.  It is now also building to green standards.

In the past two years, Habitat expanded to assist people who own their homes, but cannot afford to keep them in good repair.

A Brush with Kindness (ABWK) is part of that expansion.  It partners with Habitat’s core program, allowing Habitat to serve a different population.  It follows the same basic tenets for eligibility as for new construction.  Clients must have need, be able to pay and be willing to partner.

This program began with volunteers providing exterior repair services, such as painting, minor repairs, landscaping, weatherization and exterior cleanup.  It also offers its clients energy audits.  In North Idaho, projects occasionally move indoors.

When Catherine contacted Habitat, she applied through Katrina Boyer, who coordinates the ABWK program and volunteer workers.

Katrina learned Catherine, 59, has been disabled since her youth.  She prides herself on her independence and raising a family as a single mother.  She lives alone in her paid-for home, where she has lived about 10 years.  She has been able to do much by herself, but was too weak to put in windows, paint or build a ramp.

Catherine’s application went to Greg Kunkel, crew leader for work groups.  Before coming to Habitat, Greg had volunteered with Tesh, Inc. in Coeur d’Alene on their House to Home program for people with disabilities.

When that program ended, he came to Habitat as an AmeriCorps volunteer for a year to help with construction leadership.  A retired contractor, he knows all phases of construction. 

After a year with AmeriCorps, Habitat hired him.

Greg, who is now certified as a green builder, said he may go to do one project and end up doing six improvements, because they are needed.

He went to Catherine’s home, took photographs, determined what work was required, acquired permits and assessed the cost.

If an assessment is more than $1,000, the affiliate runs a credit check.  The client contracts to pay Habitat back.  If the cost is less than $1,000 and if the client pays half of the amount when Habitat comes to do the job, Habitat will call it even.  The client also must put in some labor—sweat equity.

Unable to work with the volunteers, Catherine worked at the Habitat office.

Once she was approved as a candidate for ABWK and knew what work was needed, he turned to Katrina for volunteers.  He taught the volunteers how to install the windows.

Catherine opened her home to the volunteers, whom she considers “a God-send.”  She is grateful because her windows not only keep her house tight against the weather but also muffle the noise from neighbors playing loud music.  Other volunteers will repaint her house in the spring.

Habitat breaks even on these projects.  Beyond Katrina’s and Greg’s wages, the projects are funded by grants and clients repaying the loans.

When homes need painting, Valspar provides paint.  Thrivent Financial for Lutherans donated $5,000 to Habitat for Humanity of North Idaho for exterior repairs through its Thrivent Builds Repairs program.

Additional funds for Habitat come from its ReStore, which opened eight years ago.  The ReStore receives donated items, sells them “for cheap” and makes money to put into the building and refurbishing projects.

A Brush with Kindness does not work with renters, but some landlords and tenants, seeing the improvements it brings to the community, have cleaned up their places, too.

While Habitat of North Idaho usually builds two new homes a year, Eula said, it can also complete about 20 smaller projects, touching the lives of many more people.

“We usually have a job every Saturday.  Some volunteers also work during the week.  Groups call to work for a day either on a house or a rehabilitation project,” she said  “with eight to 10 people, many projects require only a day.

“For three of the past four years, Habitat-sponsored cross-country bike trips, called Bike and Build, have stopped here.  About 35 young people have stayed at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and worked for a day before moving on,” Eula said.

“Most are college graduates who put in $4,500 themselves.  We received a grant from the group for $6,000, put them to work on A Brush with Kindness and other projects, and gave them lunch.”

Eula describes Habitat as charity, a skills training program, a construction company and a mortgage company.  It recently began offering micro-loans for ABWK projects.

Habitat of North Idaho works in most of Kootenai County, including Spirit Lake, Rathdrum, Hayden, Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and in some county locations.

The affiliate is one of 12, working with Habitat for Humanity of Idaho.  All U.S. affiliates send 10 percent of undesignated funds  to Habitat International to build overseas projects in 90 countries. 

Eula said the success rate is high.  Of the 36 homes they have built, only one has been repossessed and only two clients did not care for their places.

“Through sweat equity, people learn to commit themselves, save money and put up with many kinds of people,” she said.  “They will have energy-efficient homes they can afford.  They gain equity, which gives them freedom to care for themselves and send their children to school.”

Eula understands challenges Habitat clients may face because she grew up poor in the Depression.  She became a teacher and eventually bought her own home.  “It made such a difference to no longer pay rent,” she said.

After retiring from teaching in Washington, she moved to Coeur d’Alene and became a realtor.

“In 1993, I saw a Habitat house in Athol.  It impressed me enough that I sent a donation to former President Jimmy Carter, who is active with Habitat.  His organization contacted the Habitat affiliate here and said, ‘Here’s a live one!’  I’ve never looked back.”

Realizing the value of owning property, she sees the value of the opportunity Habitat offers people.

She has been chair of the board of directors three times.  When she became chair the first time, she urged the board to buy land.  Former board member Anne Salisbury said, “Habitat took off after that.”

Five years ago, Habitat of North Idaho went through several executive directors in a short period, so Eula took the position on half time. 

“I decided maybe I’m supposed to do this,” she said.  “When I see something where I can make a difference, I want to do it,” she said.  “I like to support things that help people help themselves.  Habitat for Humanity does that.”

Eula, who describes her enthusiasm about Habitat as “habititis,” also helps the Lutheran Church of the Master in Coeur d’Alene run a Sunday lunch program, Our Daily Bread.  She is also on the board of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which determines where to disperse local funds.

Next year, she expects Habitat’s outreach to expand by offering A Brush with Kindness types of projects through a Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

For information, call 208-762-4663 or visit

Copyright © January 2013 - The Fig Tree