Cheryl Keenan honored for work with Habitat for Humanity

La Jolla resident Cheryl Keenan was honored by the Ecumenical Council of San Diego April 10 for her work in expanding the reach of San Diego’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.

Keenan was hired as the executive director of San Diego Habitat for Humanity six years ago after moving to San Diego from Phoenix. She has a background in real estate and construction, which proved to be enormously helpful in running the organization. She had also run a nonprofit similar to Habitat for Humanity in Phoenix.

Mitchell Prior, who is on the board of the Ecumenical Council as well as the board of San Diego Habitat for Humanity, credits Keenan’s success to her ability to deal with both the city of San Diego and various churches in order to coordinate resources to enable the nonprofit to build more homes.

“She’s a very dynamic person and has accomplished a great deal,” he said. “Habitat for Humanity has become a superior nonprofit organization under her leadership.”

Keenan said she is “humbled and honored” by the award. She said that the most fun and rewarding part of her job is meeting the families that her organization helps. When a new home is completed, there is a dedication ceremony where the families receive the keys to their new home.

“I am blessed to have this job,” she said. “Everyone that works there works so many hours and is so dedicated, and it’s just an amazing organization.”

When Keenan took charge, San Diego Habitat for Humanity was building about one or two houses each year. Today the organization has more than doubled that number and this year will build its 100th home. In addition, local Habitat has rebuilt 21 homes that were destroyed in the 2003 wildfires. The organization has built homes in various San Diego neighborhoods such as Carlsbad, Vista, Oceanside, National City and El Cajon.

San Diego Habitat for Humanity also recently started a Brush with Kindness program, which works with low-income homeowners who need, but cannot afford, home repairs.

“We’ve really expanded it to where we’re doing subdivisions now,” said Keenan.

Families who receive homes from Habitat for Humanity receive low-interest loans to make the houses more affordable. The target range is typically those who earn only 50-60 percent of the average income in their area, but occasionally people with higher incomes are helped as well. Families are given a 20-year zero-interest mortgage, and the funds from the mortgage payments are used by Habitat to build more homes for those in need. Habitat families are also required to give 250 to 500 hours of labor, known as “sweat equity,” that can be applied to their own home, the homes of others or to other Habitat for Humanity projects.

Keenan said that one of the primary obstacles the nonprofit faces is that land, housing and home building are much more expensive in San Diego than in most other parts of the country. The downturn in the economy has also negatively impacted the donations the organization receives. The cost of building materials has also increasing.

The mission of Habitat for Humanity is to provide affordable housing to low-income families. It was founded in the mid-1970s by Millard and Linda Fuller of Georgia and made famous by President Jimmy Carter, who to this day is an active participant. The San Diego affiliate was founded in 1987, and until the early 1990s it provided homes in both San Diego and Tijuana. Today the organization only provides housing in San Diego County, and Habitat International has an office in Tijuana. Habitat for Humanity also prefers to call itself a nonprofit rather than a charity because it feels that by selling houses to families at a low cost and requiring them to assist in building efforts they are offering families a “hand up” rather than a “handout” and teaching them to be independent. Although the nonprofit is a Christian organization, they do not discriminate as to who they assist.

Almost all of the manual labor used to build homes for Habitat is done by volunteers. According to Keenan, those who volunteer their time to help others gain much more than if they had simply written a check because they are able to be involved with those they are helping in a much more tangible way.

“I think a volunteer walks away with as much as the recipient does,” said Keenan.

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