The face of Habitat

Executive director leads nonprofit organization for more than 13 years

By Rebecca Berfanger // Photography by Angela Jackson

It should come as no surprise that having a stable home is the key to success for families and their children. Having a consistent place to do homework and have family meals greatly improves a child’s ability to stay focused on school and can open many doors for them.

Perhaps no other organization embodies this ideal than Habitat for Humanity, a faith-based, international organization with an affiliate in Johnson County that has built almost 25 houses in almost 20 years, plus about another 30 homes they built around the world, thanks to a tithing program where 10 percent of the funds raised by local chapters goes to the international organization to build homes in developing countries.

Lee Ann Wilbur has led the organization since November 2010. Her colleagues say she lights up the room when she enters, she’s compassionate and caring, wears many hats and isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and get to work.

A lifelong Johnson County resident, Wilbur worked for Johnson County Development Corporation prior to assuming her current role.

Many years ago, Doug Grant was working as director of civic engagement and service learning at Franklin College. As the faculty advisor of Franklin College Habitat Club, he often traveled with students during spring-break sessions to help them build homes with Habitat affiliates. At the time, Johnson County did not yet have an affiliate.

However, after a trip to Americus, Georgia, in the early 2000s and being afforded the opportunity to meet, Millard Fuller, founder of the international organization Franklin College Habitat Club, Grant was inspired to start a county-wide steering committee to determine whether Johnson County had a need for its own affiliate.

By June 2006, the Johnson County organization gained full-affiliate status and built its first partner family house one month later.

Grant ran the program for a few years prior to the hiring of an executive director. When that individual left, Grant knew Wilbur would be perfect for the job.

“Being with Johnson County Development Corporation, she knew everybody,” he said. “Early on, she was also involved in Leadership Johnson County.”

Wilbur accepted Grant’s offer, and although she admits to having seen a lot of changes over the years, she said the organization’s mission remains as it was back then.

Asked to explain her role as executive director, Wilbur compared it to an analog watch.

“All the dials have to be in sync,”  she said.

Those dials include having families who qualify for the program, land available in the county, funds for the construction of homes and volunteers who are willing to put in the time needed for successful projects. And that’s just to build the homes.

“If even one of those is out of sync, it won’t work,” Wilbur said.

She also has several other obligations, such as forming partnerships with local nonprofit organizations and local businesses, overseeing the employees and volunteers who staff the ReStore, making sure the members of the board of directors are all doing what they need to do, and often acting as the face of the organization.

In order to qualify for assistance, families must go through a thorough application process.

“We used to get a handful of applications, but in last cycle, we got almost 20, which is a lot for us,” she said.

Applicants must also already live in Johnson County, must show the need for a home and be within 30 to 80 percent of the median-household income for the area.

If a family is eligible for assistance, they are screened by the Family Services Committee. That committee then shares their choices with board members.

For families that are selected, it’s generally a two-year process before they get the keys to a newly finished home. In that time, they take classes about finances and budgeting, and they are paired with an advocate who helps them learn how to “navigate the system.”

Johnson County usually only builds one new home each year.

When an actual build takes place, Wilbur is onsite every day speaking with construction crews, talking with volunteers and interacting with the homeowners. But sometimes, she’s there just for the sake of being there.

“I have always taken the stance if you’re giving of your time and money, I’m out on build site every day,” Wilbur said. “I’m talking to volunteers, helping them if they need anything. I’m taking pictures and putting them on Facebook. I want them to have a positive experience.”

“When people think of Habitat, they definitely think of Lee Ann,” said former board member Chris Beil, who has been a family advocate and participated in four builds.

“She is the face of the organization. When she walks into a room, people light up and flock to her. When you talk to anyone on a committee or board and ask why they are volunteering, they say it’s because they want to work with her. Her passion and dedication shines through, and people want to be around her.”

Even beyond build sites, Grant said people gravitate toward Wilbur.

“She is a cheerleader for Habitat. She has to be the face of Habitat all the time, and she loves doing it. She shows up for chamber luncheons and community events and for events for other nonprofits. She’ll attend the state of the city addresses and will go anywhere where it’s important to show this is a community we all share.”

Wilbur enjoys seeing new and old faces at build sites, including the ever popular “Women Build” teams.

“My construction guys love Women Builds,” Wilbur said. “The women want to learn, and they pay attention. I think the women also embrace that family as if they were their mother.”

But that’s just one group she sees at each build site.

“We work as partners with so many people in our community, including local restaurants wanting to feed volunteers and local coffee shops who bring breakfast and morning caffeine,” she said.

“For people who’ve never done a Habitat build, I highly encourage them,” Wilbur continued. “It’s amazing to meet the partner family, and when everything’s done, we dedicate the house. Everyone’s heart is full of joy in that moment. You know what it means to
that family, how impactful it is for them to get the keys. That’s our endgame. Putting a family in the house and watching them be successful.”

However, after starting life in a new home, families continue to work with their assigned advocates to help ensure ongoing success.

Land availability and rising constructions costs continue to be hurdles that must be overcome.

“Before COVID, I could build a house for $90,000 to $95,000, but it has cost $150,000 to 160,000 for the last few houses,” Wilbur said. “We have to come up with ways to offset that.”

Creativity is key, and that’s where the ReStore, which opened in 2016, has helped.

Community members donate their own home items to a thrift store, typically furniture and appliances, and then the proceeds from the sale of those items go back to the organization. Fortunately, there is a high demand.

The ReStore was also the home to Grant’s ongoing project “The Soup Bowl,” where for $25, community members could buy a bowl of soup and get to keep the decorative ceramic bowl. The 2024 Soup Bowl took place Feb. 25, and it’s estimated that approximately 500 bowls of soup were sold.

To address the issue of land scarcity in Johnson County, dilapidated homes that are beyond repair are sometimes torn down and the lot is used to build a Habitat home that is accompanied by a tax deduction.

While home recipients obviously can’t be guaranteed exactly what part of the county their new home will be built, they can rest assured it will be somewhere in Johnson County.

“Lee Ann felt like this is our county and our families that we want to empower our volunteers here,” Grant said. “We want to let people know when you live in Johnson County, your neighbors care about you. We want to enhance your life and make a difference.”

Wilbur also said that with the first 24 houses, almost every town in Johnson County has had at least one home built by the Habitat affiliate, including the most recent closing in early November 2023, and the 25th expected to be built in 2024. This matters because it shows they are truly county wide, Grant said.

For instance, according to Grant, the first build in Edinburgh was such a big deal that it resulted in Habitat being featured in a town parade.

“It’s an amazing experience to bring that community together, to lift up a family,” Grant said. “She never wants to lose that. Every volunteer who comes to a build invariably says, ‘I got so much more out of this day than I gave.’ She knows they’ll share that with others.”

Looking ahead, Wilbur is excited about new opportunities, including a recent Community Development Block grant for Greenwood residents who need help with home repairs or maintenance.

“Our first one was a disabled veteran. His furnace didn’t work, so we replaced it. Knowing we could do that for a disabled vet was really heartwarming,” she said. “I’m hoping that we can eventually spread that throughout the county through Habitat to do minor repairs to keep people in their homes.”

Wilbur is confident they’ll succeed in all future ventures due to community support.

“In Johnson County, we are so blessed because everyone in our community is so giving,” she said. “I know right now if I needed anything, I could call the other nonprofits. If they could help me, they would, even though we have different missions. We’re all each other’s cheerleaders. I’m happy if they have a success like they’re happy if we have success.”

For those who want to support Habitat of Johnson County, Wilbur said monthly donations are appreciated, “no matter how small.” In addition, Wilbur said donations to the ReStore, joining a Habitat committee as a volunteer, setting up a build team or including Habitat in estate planning are other ways to help.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had and also the most rewarding,” Wilbur said.