Building Brighter Futures in North Florida

Beaches Habitat for Humanity story and pictures by Mike KuuselaLast Friday I had the opportunity to revisit with a local nonprofit organization that I had volunteered with back in my days of studying at the University of North Florida. During my visit with Beaches Habitat for Humanity I was pleased to see that the organization was still doing well and building brighter futures for North Florida. I had the opportunity to meet with Donna Rex the CEO of the local North Florida affiliate as well as Jasmine Salter who will soon be a proud new homeowner at the organization’s latest development called OceanGate.

Beaches Habitat for Humanity story and pictures by Mike Kuusela

Donna has been with the organization for two years now and previously came from a background of corporate banking and other work in the nonprofit sector. As we began talking Donna told me that joining Beaches Habitat came as a calling of faith. And even though Habitat for Humanity is a Christian based organization it services individuals from all ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Donna told me that she also used to work in public broadcasting for several years and had studied communications at Florida State University.

Beaches Habitat for Humanity story and pictures by Mike Kuusela

The main headquarters for Habitat for Humanity International is located in Atlanta Georgia and has more than 1,500 affiliates that operate independently across the United States and seventy additional across the world. Up to this point the organization as a whole has served approximately 6.8 million people. Beaches Habitat for Humanity recently celebrated it’s 25th year of serving North Florida and is currently in full swing of developing their new OceanGate community off of Mayport Road in Atlantic Beach. Donna told me that to be a potential home owner in one of the Beaches Habitat for Humanity communities one has to qualify as having a need for housing. The criteria for establishing this need include currently living in substandard housing, paying more than 30% of one’s income in rent, or living in a dwelling with too many occupants. In addition the applicant has to either live or work within the chapter’s designated area for more than a year. Once the applicants are approved and have met the initial conditions for home ownership they also have to put in three hundred hours of “sweat equity”. This includes time spent building their own home or in some cases contribute their time in various other ways to the organization.

Beaches Habitat for Humanity story and pictures by Mike Kuusela

OceanGate will consist of seventy town homes within the community and twenty four have already been sold. I got the opportunity to meet with soon to be home owner Jasmine Salter and asked her about her personal experience in dealing with the organization. She said she came to Beaches Habitat for Humanity wanting a home and that the organization took her under it’s wing and laid out the game plan for achieving her dream. She added, “they showed me everything involved in process, from point A to B. They guided me all the way from the application to laying the foundation for my own home.” Jasmine is born and raised in Jacksonville and currently works at ADT. Jasmine says that, “seeing the positive impact the organization has on local communities is a great feeling.” She is proud to be from such a place where her fellow Jacksonville residents look out for one another and step up to help each other. She also said that the hands on approach to home ownership that the organization provides is an excellent way to learn how to maintain her new home. In addition to learning construction skills the organization provides education in managing finances and proper neighborly etiquette.

Beaches Habitat for Humanity story and pictures by Mike Kuusela

During my visit with Beaches Habitat for Humanity I also met with one of the local volunteers, Melissa Villarini . Melissa has worked at ADT for nineteen years as an area administrative manager. I asked her what it meant to her to be a part of this experience with Beaches Habitat. She said, “being involved in the community provides great pride in what we do. We take pride in knowing that we are helping one of our own fellow team members in building her new home.” I asked Melissa what her personal reason for volunteering was. She told me, ” it’s a great cause, providing a basic human need to local families in Jacksonville.” ADT has a volunteer program called “ADT Cares” and ADT has a big ADT Cares week each year where employees partner with a NPO and provide a full week of service. Locally this program is known as the “Habitat Challenge.”

Beaches Habitat for Humanity story and pictures by Mike Kuusela

Once residents move into a new Beaches Habitat community they are expected to adhere to HOA guidelines. The typical Habitat for Humanity community will consist of thirty units and take an average of one and a half years to complete. OceanGate is the largest community that the local affiliate has ever taken on, once fully developed the entire project will have taken about four years. Each home is approximately 1,250 square feet and the typical mortgage payment is five hundred and fifty dollars a month. The organization receives donations from several large sponsors such as Valspar paint who donates all paint for the Habitat homes. Locally the organization receives support from PGA tour, Scheidel Foundation, Publix Super Markets, ADT, and various local auto dealers. In addition, all appliances for the units are donated from Whirlpool.

Beaches Habitat for Humanity story and pictures by Mike Kuusela

I asked Donna what the most exciting time in the organization’s history is. She said “right now because we are serving more families than ever before. We are celebrating the 300th home locally, and we will have contributed enough money to Tithe to build one hundred and fifty homes overseas.” These over seas locations include Coast Rica, Haiti, Nepal, and Lesotho.

To learn more about Beaches Habitat for Humanity visit their website at

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Written and published for BUZZ Magazine, May 2016.

BUZZ Magazine Jacksonville FL

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