In 1998, a group of community leaders brought Habitat for Humanity to Benton. Twenty years later, Habitat for Humanity of Saline County has established itself in the area. As the affiliate celebrates this milestone anniversary this year, 80 homes have been dedicated. A ReStore, which sells donated items used to raise funds for the organization, is also celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
“The impact has been huge,” said Habitat for Humanity of Saline County executive director Stephanie Griffin. “We started with one family, and now 20 years later we have helped over 80 families and still counting. It’s not like we build one, and then we skip a year. There is no lull. We are consistently building and dedicating five or six houses every year. The community knows that Habitat is going to make a difference directly in five or six families’ lives and indirectly in numerous others’ lives.”
Habitat for Humanity International is a Christian nonprofit organization, established in Georgia in 1976. The organization’s mission is to build homes for low-income families who cannot afford a mortgage. Habitat requires that homeowners put in 500 hours of “sweat equity” on the house as a down payment, and then the mortgage payment never exceeds 30 percent of the household income.
Judge Robert Herzfeld and others were intrigued by the idea, and saw how the programs flourished in bordering Pulaski and Saline counties. Finally, the group contacted the organization’s headquarters and began the process to bring an affiliate to Benton.
“It was just a couple of folks that got together and decided [Benton] would be a great location for Habitat,” Griffin said.
Slowly, the affiliate garnered more and more support from the community. Habitat relies on volunteer laborers and contractors to build the homes. “The volunteers have been supportive from the beginning,” said Griffin, who has been with Habitat in Saline County since 2016. “In a small community, it is tremendous seeing folks coming out week after week volunteering their time.”
After five years, the affiliate decided to open a ReStore in downtown Benton, after Regions Bank donated its building. The ReStore concept helps affiliates raise money by accepting donations of slightly used furniture, clothing and other household items, then selling them with the proceeds benefitting construction projects.
“I was on the ReStore side in Pulaski County during the 10 years I was with them,” Griffin said. “It is always a struggle at first to convince your board of directors to get one started because you are thinking, ‘Oh man, we have all of these expenses to either buy a building or rent a building. We’ve got utilities and payroll and all of those things, but how do we know for sure we are going to get enough donations to sell stuff?’ It’s not like you are a brand like Home Depot, where you sell merchandise and have a steady stock of it. It’s all dependent on donations. It’s very scary, but very few, if any, ReStores have ever failed across the country. Most of the time, they far exceed expectations and do tremendously. The struggle for the affiliates also becomes not to become too reliant on the ReStore. You still need to do the fundraisers and call on those corporate donors.”
The ReStore changed its days of operation from Tuesday to Saturday to give its employees back-to-back days off. But still, people bring donations on Monday and call the office checking on what is in stock. Those occurrences are both reminders that the store has become a staple in downtown Benton.
“Being in the downtown area, we have some foot traffic,” Griffin said. “A lot of folks drive to us as a destination. It definitely has been well-received.”
The ReStore profits help, but Griffin said that the search for funding has nevertheless presented a constant hurdle. Corporate donations and the popular fundraiser Souper Bowl soup lunch the Friday before the Super Bowl have been the foundation of the organization.
The other dilemma has been finding land on which to build. All of the homes that Habitat Saline has built zone with the Benton School District. The affiliate has had trouble finding land in Bryant and other parts of the county.
“Finding lots and land we can build on that aren’t flood zones, or where there isn’t a hidden agenda why someone is selling the property or why someone wants to donate the property can be difficult,” she said. “Without land and a lot, we can’t build. It’s been a struggle to branch out just beyond Benton. We want to get into the other school districts in Saline County whether it be Bryant or Harmony Grove, but it is so hard to find land, especially in Bryant. One of the hurdles is finding land that is buildable in a decent area that families can thrive on.”
Still, the affiliate has managed to build more than 70 homes. A few of those homes have been reacquired because a family has moved, or for other reasons. Crews then add a new roof or HVAC system and dedicate the home to another family, raising that total to 80.
“It is very rewarding. You have the headaches that anyone else does, but working for a nonprofit and knowing you are changing lives every day, in one way or another, even though you may not directly see the impacts immediately…you eventually hear the stories of a valedictorian who was a Habitat homeowner. It is pretty incredible.”