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The Vision for Better Homes, Stronger Communities…Joann Blewett, Habitat for Humanity

March 2012

Joann Blewett, executive director, Habitat for Humanity Susquehanna

Joann Blewett has a clear vision for improving the community. Her handiwork as executive director of Habitat for Humanity Susquehanna, Inc. is made manifest by the strong partnerships developed and the outreach programs pioneered. As the leader and executive director of Habitat for Humanity, Blewett is extremely organized and “not handy” but wears a pink tool belt occasionally. She rises to the challenge of learning new skills such as hanging and cutting siding, landscaping, and she relishes in the opportunity to sweep up drywall dust.

Leading Life-Changing Home Builds
Serving Habitat for Humanity for 10 years, Blewett heads the construction, development and administrative teams. Her most important task is setting the vision, policies and procedures of the organization with the help of Habitat’s board of directors.

“Our mission is to build, renovate and repair homes in partnership with the community and the families we serve,” Blewett explains. “Our families are active participants and I think that’s what people love about Habitat the most.”

Blewett says that families literally invest hundreds of hours of sweat equity into building their homes. The typical single applicant puts in 250 hours to build their home, and the applicant family contributes 500 hours. Citing a need for affordable housing in the community, Blewett feels it’s important to keep people working in the valuable jobs that keep the economy going. However, Blewett notes that often people can’t afford to live in the community and end up commuting.

“[Our applicants to Habitat] want to live and work in the same community just as we do,” she recognizes.

A Higher Inspiration to Serve
Married to husband Bill, Blewett stayed home to raise her now grown children J.D., Daniel and Annie. Daughter Annie now works as a family services associates for Indian River Habitat for Humanity in Vero Beach, Fla. While raising her children, Blewett worked part-time for MADD, volunteered in the community and ran Bel Air Festival for the Arts for 10 years. Prior to joining Habitat, Blewett worked for the Harford County Department of Community Services in a mentoring program called Kids C.A.N. (Caring Adult Network). Her position recruited mentors for children needing a caring adult.

During her employment at Kids C.A.N., Blewett went back to college at night. She graduated from the University of Baltimore with inter-disciplinary studies: sociology, psychology and government with a specialization in human services administration. Inspired by a church service she attended at Mountain Christian Church, she says, “I felt led to quit my job.” Her boss Mary Chance gave her a folder about a Christian organization where women build called Habitat for Humanity.

Her Road to Leadership
In 2002, Blewett volunteered for Habitat, joined the board, and five months later became Habitat’s executive director. Intending to go to graduate school on the weekends, Blewett realized after the first class that Saturdays must be spent on the construction site and also with her family. However, an alternative to graduate school presented itself in the form of leadership training.

“It’s really hard to do everything well, being a mom and graduate student,” Blewett points out. “Six months into the job, Habitat sent an email saying that Harvard offered to do a weekend training program with their professors, a leadership program for Executive Directors for Habitat. It was the most incredible training I’ve ever attended.”

Through the Harvard Leadership Academy, the Weinberg Fellows program and Leadership for Maryland, she gained extensive non-profit executive training. Blewett learned that non-profit work requires her presence in the community, learning from other such leaders.

Pam Ruff, Habitat board president and executive director of Maryland Economic Development Association (MEDA), met Blewett at the Harford Leadership Academy in 2006 when she was speaking. Ruff says that she wanted to be involved with Blewett because the passion for her work at Habitat was so evident.

Joann Blewett (left) and Anne Hottle, finance assistant, perform data inquiries for projects.

“Joann has the gift of listening to all options and makes really good judgment decisions on what to do and how to go forward,” Ruff says. “I’m very supportive of Joann because she has the integrity, passion, and drive and makes a very positive impact on our community.”

Expanding Habitat’s Reach
When Blewett joined Habitat, the non-profit had $80,000 in the bank and a budget of $200,000. Now, the budget reaches $2 million, with 2011 recording a big jump from six to 10 Habitat houses completed. She manages eight full-time and five part-time staff members. The big news in 2011 was the merger with Cecil Habitat to become Habitat For Humanity Susquehanna, covering Harford and Cecil counties. Also last year, Habitat for Humanity Susquehanna finished 68 critical repairs: roofs, hot water and heating/AC. This year, Blewett plans 10 Habitat houses and hopes her teams will complete 68-70 repairs.

“With the economy, people just can’t afford to do some of the basic things they need to repair their homes, especially a lot of elderly and disabled on limited, fixed income,” she remarks.

Habitat has prioritized roof repairs where leaking is occurring. On the home ownership side, Blewett says applicants are screened with a rigorous process to determine low-income eligibility and good credit standings.

Community Betterment
Blewett realized she was creative when it came to program development and expanded connections through strong community relations. Under her guidance, several programs are now bettering the community. Habitat for Humanity Susquehanna developed a program with the Harford County’s Sheriff’s department, Building Opportunity, providing training for inmates. Supervised at the construction site, inmates build Habitat homes and participate in a 12-week interactive program that focuses on changing the way offenders view themselves by addressing issues ranging from self-esteem to the consequences of decision making. This teaches construction and life skills in preparation for employment after release.

Habitat also works with Harford Technical High School as students build a LEED certified house that will move to Aberdeen in two pieces. A team of Habitat volunteers will add finishing touches such as the porch and landscaping. Harford Tech students have worked right in the school’s construction courtyard during the yearlong project.

“Right now all of the drywall is done and [students] will paint and install kitchen cabinets,” Blewett reveals. “[Students] have built electrical, plumbing, HVAC, the whole nine yards.”

Strength in Partnerships
In a partnership with Richmond American Homes, two Habitat homes are being built in a “blitz” and contractors are donating time and services. A “blitz” build is two houses completed within five days. A specific construction schedule outlines every 30 minutes of activity for the Habitat crew during the five-day timeline.

“Initially my vision, and I was so green, was to build more houses. I just wanted to put more families in houses. As you grow and evolve in a position you learn that partnerships are so important,” Blewett says.

Habitat also formed a critical repair program when a local non-profit, Rebuilding Together, closed their doors. Blewett says that Harford County approved the idea of Habitat taking over the repair program. “As I grew as a leader, and our staff grew, it was a natural evolution,” Blewett says. “There is more and more need for the repair program, especially in this economy.”

Blewett says volunteers help every week on repairs and builds. She credits Habitat’s board for helping to raise the money necessary and setting policies and procedures and conducting the fiduciary responsibilities for our organization. “Without all of our partners, we can’t be successful,” she states.

Raymond (Chick) Hamm is a market executive for PNC Bank and met Blewett three years ago when she invited him to join Habitat’s board of directors.

“Her enthusiasm for what she is doing is infectious. It’s difficult to be around her and not get caught up in the work that she’s doing and her heartfelt energy that is helping the families,” Hamm elaborates. “She says over and over again – we’re not here to give a handout, it’s a hand up.”

Hamm says he admires watching her as an executive as she’s very engaged with the families served. “Joann is a wonderful leader, and she is particularly well suited for what she is doing for Habitat,” Hamm realizes.

How Businesses Can Help Habitat
Blewett encourages the business community to take a day off and bring teams to swing hammers. She said that businesses might choose to hold events to benefit Habitat for Humanity. She says that while the non-profit needs money, she feels that it’s important for people to see what Habitat is all about. Blewett says Habitat for Humanity Susquehanna is actively looking for mentors and volunteers.

“If construction isn’t right for you, we have a volunteer coordinator who will find out what you like to do. We want to find what people are happy doing and we will find a place for you [at Habitat],” she emphasizes.

More than just providing housing, Blewett sees the greater social responsibility of Habitat for Humanity’s impact. “It’s the ripple effect of homeownership: our families become taxpayers and voters. Seeing the effect of homeownership in our communities makes us think bigger,” she states. As Blewett observes families active in the community, she realizes it’s not important to count how many families are served by Habitat, but she says, “It’s more about how we can strengthen neighborhoods and really change communities.” I95