Eighteen years after Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) was founded in Americus, Georgia in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller, residents of the Marshfield area began the effort to establish a local Habitat presence. Rev. Bob Jacobs, former pastor at First Presbyterian Church, and Dave Schindhelm, the church’s business manager, held a meeting early in 1994 to discuss the possibility. The flame flickered briefly, but didn’t begin to burn until later that year, when Barb Mahler called friends together at the church to lay the foundation for a Habitat program in Marshfield.
In August, 1994, Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity came to life as Barb and a dedicated group of early leaders laid groundwork for the nonprofit organization and sought to become an official HFHI affiliate. Initial board members struggled to raise funds, recruit volunteers, become a legal entity and handle the paperwork to meet HFHI requirements for affiliation.
On January 1, 1996, our organization became the 24th affiliate of HFHI in the state of Wisconsin, which now has 44 Habitat affiliates. Affiliation allowed Marshfield, as an autonomous local, nonprofit organization responsible for its own activities—including fund-raising—to work in partnership worldwide with HFHI.
The standard Habitat method of operation was established. Through volunteer labor and tax-deductible donations of money and materials, the new affiliate would work with families in need, “partner families,” to build or renovate simple, decent housing. The houses would then be sold to partner families at no profit, financed with affordable, no-interest mortgages. Board members annually sign an Affiliate Covenant pledging to live up to certain Habitat standards.
Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity’s first partner family was Dave & Bev Williams and their three children. Habitat volunteers worked alongside the family to build a home in Spencer, dedicating it on December 15, 1996, in time for Christmas. The following year, partner family Ben & Linda Beaudry and their two children moved into their Habitat home in Marshfield on October 1, 1997.
In the meantime, Marshfield Habitat’s board of directors continued to expand its vision, as well as the number of volunteers and donations. Ken Neumann suggested applying for a Wisconsin Local Housing Organization Grant (LHOG) to “expand capacity.” He wrote a successful $22,000 grant application and, as a result, Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity was able to employ Sharon Schaefer ten hours a week as Coordinator from April 1998 to March 2000. Meanwhile, HFHI provided support through regional affiliate manager Jan Nigh, who entered the scene in 1998 and has continued to the present.
By the end of 1998, partner family James & Dawn Wolk and their three children moved into a Habitat home built on Marshfield’s east side.
In 1999 the board instituted several administrative changes. Board terms established in the by-laws were changed from two to three years, to prevent the possibility that half the board could change in one year. Partner family “sweat equity” hours were reduced from 500 per family to 200 hours per adult with a maximum of 400 hours. The board also decided not to accept donated homes that had to be moved to a new site, having found that initial costs were often higher, and realizing homeowner maintenance and heating costs were likely to be higher.
Throughout its history, the board passionately debated many policies. Although Marshfield, like many Wisconsin affiliates, disagreed with national HFHI home design guidelines specifying no garages or basements, it nonetheless eliminated garages from its designs unless homeowner disabilities required it. Basements, however, were sometimes included as a common-sense choice. In 2004 it was decided to build Energy Star-rated homes, to reduce future energy costs for Habitat families. Homeowner amenities and land contract versus mortgage were also debated. Throughout, the board attempted to honor the concept of “simple, decent housing” and remain faithful stewards of donated funds.
Each year, the board votes on family selection, as well as both practical and policy issues that come up in such areas as house design, sweat equity requirements and mortgage payments. New board members are elected at the January meeting and provided complete training. Chronic challenges are finding families to meet Habitat criteria, obtaining affordable land and keeping building costs low.
Local volunteers, individual donors, churches and businesses have generously supported Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity. In the early years, Saint Joseph’s Hospital provided not only several years of five-figure financial support, it also donated a house, and employees of the hospital led by Mike Blackwood constructed another. Large gifts from local family foundations, businesses and individuals have been augmented by numerous small gifts from supporters passionate about helping others. Grant income is also brought in and Whirlpool provides basic appliances to Habitat homes nationwide.
By the end of 1999 another home was completed in Marshfield and partner family Charlie & Debbie Bennett and their two children had become homeowners. In 2000, HFHI built its 100,000th house, while Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity celebrated by dedicating its fourth home with partner Barb Zellner and her two children in Arpin.
To build Habitat houses in other countries, Habitat affiliates are asked to set aside 10% of the funds they raise. This money—designated as the tithe—joins all Habitat partners together in a worldwide vision of eliminating poverty housing. Marshfield has alternately designated its tithe to Argentina, in honor of Marshfield’s sister city relationship there, and to New Hope Village in Guatemala. By providing $30,650 of tithe since 1998, Marshfield Habitat has paid for an estimated 10 houses overseas.
In 2001 and 2002, Russell & Barbara Peterson and their son Justin and Tom & Jenny Hilber purchased Habitat homes in Marshfield. Sadly, as the 2002 project was nearing completion, Vice President Dick Strand passed away. A memorial donation made in his name provided landscaping for homes constructed during his board terms.
In 2002, the board discussed with Pittsville Mayor Dave Lyons the possibility of extending the Marshfield Area Habitat’s boundaries to include Pittsville’s school district. The city combined with Wood County to donate a lot and, in 2003, a home for Emily Firth was dedicated in Pittsville. A local Pittsville committee coordinated key aspects of the build, showing the board that the affiliate could successfully build anywhere within its 17-mile radius service area.
In 2004 a land swap between Habitat and the City of Marshfield was made possible by a generous private real estate donation. The resulting two lots on East 4th Street became the location of the affiliate’s largest home yet: a four-bedroom, two-bath for Dania Blume and her four children. In 2005 the second lot became the location of a new home, built with partner Robert Parise, which featured a unique set of disability accommodations.
The year 2005 marked not only the 10th anniversary of Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity, it brought the self-imposed challenge to build two homes. Qualifying for HFHI’s capacity-building Open Door Challenge Grant, our affiliate raised $20,000 in matching funds. A second home was dedicated in November for the Ken Hahn family in Pittsville.
As of the end of 2016, Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity has 17 homes built in Arpin, Pittsville and Spencer as well as Marshfield. While our parent organization celebrates over 1 million homes built, residents of the Marshfield area can take pride in being a part of an effort that has provided over a million people worldwide with safe, decent, affordable shelter.