Here’s proof that good things can happen on any Friday the 13th. A potluck supper was held on Friday, Jan. 13, 1989 at the First United Methodist Church at 66 Chestnut St. in Oneonta, and over some good, shared food came the start of a positive mission in Otsego County.
“More than 60 area residents turned up at an Oneonta church Friday night to find out how to start a local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, an international group dedicated to providing decent housing for the working poor,” it was reported the next day in The Daily Star.
“I think it’s an excellent turnout. We’re on our way,” said Reese Griffin of Laurens. The proposed chapter already had $2,000 in pledged funds, two thirds of the sum necessary for affiliation. Two national Habitat for Humanity representatives told the group about the organization and how to become an affiliate.
Only a few weeks later, on Jan. 26, a steering committee was formed to work on applying for affiliation and to select a site and family for a first home building or restoration project.
Habitat for Humanity, also known simply as Habitat, began in 1975. While many believe it was founded by former president Jimmy Carter, it was actually the idea of Millard and Linda Fuller, in a rural county in the state of Georgia, not far from Carter’s hometown of Plains. Carter has probably been the most visible volunteer with Habitat after leaving the presidency in 1980.
For Otsego County, it was Reese and Ella Griffin of Laurens who proposed the idea of getting the local chapter underway, with a little persuasion. The couple first became interested in Habitat in 1978 during a volunteer stint at Koinonia, a Christian community near Americus, Ga. The Griffins had met the Rev. Bill Bouton in 1988 at a Hartwick College seminar. Bouton was then pastor at Oneonta’s First United Methodist Church, and discussed with them the need for a Habitat affiliate in this area, where the Griffins would soon be living.
By October 1989, Habitat for Humanity International approved the local affiliation, first named the Northern Susquehanna Habitat for Humanity. In later years it was changed to the present name, Habitat for Humanity of Otsego County.
The local volunteers hadn’t simply been waiting around to get word of the affiliation, as they were busy making plans for their first project. In August, a site was purchased at an Oneonta city auction on Reynolds Avenue for $2,000. The group also began searching for a family to build a home for, as well as to raise funds to make the home possible. To finish off 1989, volunteers completed a roof restoration project for a family in Unadilla.
A momentous occasion was finally reached on Saturday morning, April 28, 1990, when Oneonta Mayor David Brenner turned the first shovel of dirt for the construction site at 18 Reynolds Ave.
“Steven and Leicha Collins will be the owners of a brand new house that they will help build,” the Star reported. The couple were required to put in 300 hours of “sweat equity” into their new home. Most of the labor was provided by volunteers. The Northern Susquehanna Habitat for Humanity chapter had grown to 400 members during their first year. Between 100 and 200 of them worked on the construction of this one-and-a-half story, three-bedroom house. The Collins family planned to move into their new home in March 1991.
In addition to the “sweat equity,” a candidate family for a home must be living in substandard housing and be able to pay back Habitat for materials at no interest.
Longtime Habitat board member Emery Herman called it a win-win situation. “We’re not just building a house and leaving it. This is a hand-up, not a handout,” Herman said.
Habitat for Humanity of Otsego County has built 25 homes in their first 25 years. Volunteer opportunities and more information are available by calling 432-7874 or visiting www.habitatotsego.org.
This weekend: Rough-and-tumble times prevailed locally in the early months of 1864.
Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at email@example.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.