‘A house makes a difference’

  • Contributed by David Bieker

    Kauai Habitat for Humanity board president Leona Sa McDermott, center, receives a certificate from habitat’s volunteer manager Caitlin Pounds, right, at a volunteer appreciation breakfast Friday morning at Unko’s Kitchen in Hanapepe. Another volunteer, Sandy Ambrose, is at left.

HANAPEPE — Kauai Habitat for Humanity recognized residents who have volunteered in support of the organization’s mission to help people in need build or improve a place they can call home.

About 20 of the Habitat’s “core volunteers” came to Unko’s Kitchen on Friday morning for a breakfast and an informal ceremony recognizing 11 of Kauai’s most prolific volunteers, who have collectively put in well over 10,000 hours.

“These are just the hours that I’ve been able to log into the computer,” said Caitlin Pounds, Kauai Habitat’s volunteer program manager. “But they’ve done way more than that.”

The top two volunteers recognized were Guy Ambrose, who logged over 3,500 lifetime volunteer hours, and Loren Johnson, with about 1,800 hours. But nobody even came close to the volunteer Pounds described as “our favorite part-time resident.”

One man, who passed away suddenly last year, recorded nearly 6,000 unpaid volunteer hours with Kauai Habitat for Humanity, and Pound said that number is just the tip of the iceberg.

For a long time, the man — the family prefers that his name be kept out of the press — didn’t bother to write down the time he spent helping out. Pound said when she was finally able to convince him to keep track of his hours, the volunteer brought in piles of pages filled with dates and times.

“Like you guys, he had a lasting and ongoing impact on our organization,” Pound said.

Leona Sa McDermott — her friends call her “Ona” — was recently elected president of the Kauai Habitat’s board of directors, and said she knows firsthand how important a place to live can be for a struggling family.

“I’ve seen marriages strengthened, families strengthened,” Ona said. “A house makes a difference.”

Ona got involved with Habitat for Humanity in 2013, when the organization helped her build the home she lives in today. She talked about the process at Friday’s breakfast, remembering that even with help, it was no easy task.

“I dug my own footing. I did my own rebar,” she said. “Bra, I did everything!”

Working alongside the Habitat volunteers as the house was built made a life-changing impression on Ona. At first she couldn’t even understand why so many people she had never met would do so much to help her.

“I was amazed at all the volunteers that came,” she said. “Because of that it made me appreciate what I have.”

Ona recalled a conversation she had years ago with Kauai Habitat’s executive director, Stephen Spears. The house had just been completed. Finally she owned her own home, a dream she never thought was possible.

“I told Steve, I’ll do whatever it takes to give back,” she said.

It didn’t take long for Spears to call in the favor.

Ona said a Habitat board member got in touch with her shortly after her home was built, asking if she could help out, explaining that they needed a detail-oriented secretary. Ona jumped in and quickly realized she had more to offer than she thought.

Ona found that many families in need of the Habitat’s resources were intimidated by the organization’s higher-level executives. People that might have been afraid to talk about their concerns with someone from the mainland felt comfortable with Ona.

“When the local families see one local girl, it just wipes away the fear,” she said, explaining that her involvement with the community is the basis for all her volunteer work. “That’s why I do it.”

After two years as a secretary, Ona was elected vice president of the Habitat’s board of directors and recently became president. The Kauai Habitat has grown with her.

Volunteer program manager Caitlin Pounds said in the past three years, the number of volunteers has risen dramatically. In 2016, 326 volunteers participated in the Habitat’s outreach programs. This year, the Habitat has had 847 volunteers sign up, and three months still remain in the fiscal year.

So far this year, volunteers with the Kauai Habitat’s ReStore program have generated enough revenue to pay for the construction of five homes and were able to divert 286 tons of waste out of the island’s landfills by promoting reuse and recycling at the nonprofit home improvement store.

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Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cloehrer@thegardenisland.com.

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