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A Conversation with Avery Habitat for Humanity’s Melanie Burgin

Melanie Burgin has been with Avery Habitat for Humanity since 2004.

By Tim Gardner

In this “Conversation” story edition, Avery Habitat for Humanity’s Melanie Burgin was interviewed about that ministry. 

Avery County Habitat for Humanity is a locally run affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing organization. The local Habitat ministry strives to eliminate sub-standard housing in Avery County by assisting local, low-income families in grave need who seek home ownership as a means of obtaining financial stability and generational transformation.

To achieve this goal, Avery County Habitat partners with community organizations and individuals to build affordable, energy efficient homes that promote healthy living. Through the efforts of its various personnel, patrons and volunteers, the Avery Habitat for Humanity continues to fulfill its mission, which states: Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.

Continue reading for this reporter’s questions and Burgin’s replies to various topics related to the Habitat for Humanity and her work as its Office and Programs Manager.

High Country Press (HCP): For those who want to learn more about you, what is your personal background as well as your professional one working for Avery Habitat for Humanity?
Burgin: I grew up in Asheboro, NC, near the North Carolina Zoo. I attended Appalachian State University, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration. I majored in Hospitality Management, so I’ve worked mostly in hotel management and food service, such as Hound Ears Club during college, The Grove Park Inn in Asheville (where I met my husband, who’s a chef) and Linville Ridge Country Club after we moved to this area in 1996. We have two children, our daughter is 20 and is attending community college, and our son is 14 and is a freshman at Avery High School.

After taking six months off for the birth of our son in 2004, I started looking for a job. I needed a job that had better hours since our son would be going to a daycare, so I applied for the administrative position with Avery Habitat for Humanity. My position was expanded over the years to not only include secretarial duties, but also Family Selection intake, mortgage organization and servicing, escrow management, payroll and accounting for admin, construction and the ReStore, grant applications and management, some volunteer coordination, and some fund development duties. i’ve been with Avery Habitat ever since November 2004, and I really enjoy my job. 

HCP: When and how did local Habitat for Humanity originate?
Burgin: Avery County Habitat for Humanity began as Blue Ridge Habitat for Humanity, and it included Avery and Watauga counties. This was in 1991. A few years later the affiliates became independent of each other, and Avery County Habitat for Humanity began serving only Avery County residents. In the beginning it was an all-volunteer organization.

These early volunteers were local leaders who saw a vision of helping more low-income families achieve the reality of homeownership. Rev. Barrett Gilmer served as the Construction Supervisor, Family Selection Committee Chairman, as well as Board President. The Gilmer Community Center was named in honor of Barrett and his wife, Dudley, in 2005. Barrett passed away in 2013. Many of our board members and construction volunteers from the beginning are still active. Rev. Ed Neff has been with Avery Habitat from the 1990’s and he still chairs the Family Selection Committee.

HCP: How many employees (full-time and part-time) work for the Avery Habitat for Humanity and what are their names and duties?
Burgin: Besides me, we have four full-time employees and one part-time employee. Christon Clark is our Executive Director, Bruce Benfield is the Construction Supervisor, Lisa Sawyer is the ReStore Manager, Ken Cain is the ReStore Associate/Driver and Richard Hicks is our part-time ReStore Associate.

HCP: What kind of organizational leadership does Avery Habitat for Humanity operate under… Besides a Director, does it also have a Board of Trustees or related type of additional governing body?
Burgin: Avery County Habitat for Humanity is governed by a board of directors, currently consisting of a mayor, a community college dean, a retired engineer, a middle school principal, a retired SC Habitat for Humanity executive director, a mortgage originator, a retired minister, a Habitat homeowner who works for the US Postal Service, a retired businessman and a financial advisor.

HCP: In the past 28 years, how many homes has Avery Habitat of Humanity built and how many people has it served?
Burgin: We are currently building our 48th home. We have served 260 individuals since 1991.

HCP: How are partner families selected?
Burgin: Families must qualify based on their ability to pay, need, and their willingness to partner with Habitat. They must be a US citizen or permanent legal resident, and either lived and/or worked in Avery County for at least one year. They must have a good rental history, living independently for at least one year. Our families’ income is within 40 percent to 80 percent of the median income in Avery County. (The median income from Avery County is $46,707.) Applicants currently live in inadequate housing, pay more than 30% of their monthly income for rent, or have been unable to qualify for a conventional mortgage loan.

HCP: Where are Avery Habitat’s houses built and who builds them?
Burgin: We are building in two developments – Milford Meadows in Elk Park, off Buck Mountain Road, and White Oak Knoll in Newland, off Vale Road. Our construction supervisor builds the homes with the help of local volunteers and many volunteer groups from all around. We have many volunteers who come for a week at a time usually, and they stay in our Gilmer Community Center that is located in the Milford Meadows development, where we can house up to 38 people at a time.

This March we will host 106 college students participating in Collegiate Challenge who are traveling from Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Wisconsin just to volunteer with us. RV Care-A-Vanners come in from all around. They are retired folks with RVs, often have a skilled trade background, enjoy travelling, and stop to volunteer along the way at different Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the country. The eight RV Care-A-Vanners who are working with us during the last two weeks in May are from Auburn, AL, Lansing, MI, Charlotte, NC, Garland, TX and Gilmer, TX.

HCP: How big is a Habitat house?
Burgin: A three-bedroom house is 1,176 square feet and a 4 bedroom house is 1,360 square feet.

HCP: Approximately how much does it cost to build a home and what is its appraisal value?
Burgin: The average cost for Habitat to build a home in Avery County is $90,000, and the average appraisal value is $145,000.

HCP: How does Avery Habitat get money to build houses?
Burgin: Donations from individuals, churches and businesses are received and much appreciated. We also apply for and receive grants, including some through NC Housing Finance Agency with state Home Funds, and a federal grant “SHOP” – Self-Help Homeownership Opportunities Program, which is through Habitat for Humanity International and is used for infrastructure. The homeowners’ mortgage payments come in each month and are put toward the building of future homes. All the proceeds from our ReStore go toward the home-building, as well.

HCP: What comments would you like to offer about the local Habitat for Humanity store on Miller’s Gap Highway in Newland, which proceeds benefit your cause and other fundraisers sponsored by your organization?
Burgin: The Avery Habitat for Humanity ReStore accepts donations of used furniture, appliances, household items, and building materials. One of the goals of the ReStore, in addition to supporting the home building efforts of Avery Habitat, is to keep more items out of the landfill. We strive to recycle, restore and reuse any lightly used items that we can. Not only are we saving space in the landfill, but we are offering these items at a major discount, and therefore saving our customers’ money. We offer free pick-ups for larger items like furniture and appliances. Phone (828) 733-2025 and the ReStore staff can schedule a day and time for a pick-up. Donations to the ReStore are tax deductible and all profits support the home building efforts of Avery County Habitat for Humanity. 

A golf tournament at a nearby golf course is one of our fundraisers, and we have had events such as concerts, and even a comedian, at the auditorium at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.

HCP: Since Habitat for Humanity International is a ministry, does it and its affiliated and local organizations or individuals proselytize and offer assistance on the expressed or implied condition that people must adhere to, or convert to a particular faith, or listen and respond to messaging designed to induce conversion to a particular faith?
Burgin:   Habitat for Humanity International and its affiliated organizations will not proselytize. Nor will HFH work with entities or individuals who insist on proselytizing as part of their work with HFH.

HCP: What is your favorite aspect and the one you consider most rewarding about your work with Avery Habitat for Humanity?
Burgin: To see the excitement in the children as they are experiencing their new home being built, and at the dedication service when they are about to move in. So many children whose families work with us to build their homes are coming from sub-standard living conditions, and often have never had a bedroom to call their own. Many times the children’s health is at risk in their rental housing, and improves greatly after moving into their new home. Also, the children watch their parents work hard to make their new house happen, and we try our best to get the children involved in the entire process, as well. There’s pride in ownership and it’s not just in the parents; the children are changed for the better, as well.

Another aspect of Avery Habitat for Humanity of which I’m very proud is that we build our houses to be energy efficient. Our houses are Energy Star Certified, meaning the homes are designed, constructed, and independently verified to meet rigorous requirements for energy efficiency set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). The last home we completed in October 2018 received a “Comfort and Energy Use Two-Year Guarantee” that states the home “will have an average monthly heating and cooling cost less than or equal to $31.74.”

HCP: How can anyone become involved with Avery Habitat for Humanity or learn more about it do so?
Burgin: Check out our website at averycohfh.org as well as our Facebook page. Phone our office at 828-733-1909 and we can get anyone set up to volunteer on our construction site, the ReStore or in our office. There are so many ways to help. Many local volunteers enjoy preparing and delivering a meal to construction volunteers on site, or just donating the funds to allow us to purchase lunches for those volunteers. No skills are necessary to help with construction – our construction supervisor, Bruce Benfield, will show you what to do. The ReStore often needs volunteers for sales, merchandise display, pricing and donation pick-ups. Volunteering in our administrative office could be helping to process a newsletter or large mailing.