For this edition of Creative Corner, we spoke with Suzan Fichtner, Executive Director of Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity (NOHFH). Suzan has dedicated much of her career to giving back to the community, and in the seven years since applying for the Executive Director position, Suzan has helped to raise the overall budget to $1.1 million and has overseen more than 140 home builds and repairs. We spoke with Suzan about her role with NOHFH, her career leading up to this position, and why she doesn’t really consider her “job” a “job” after all:
How did you first get involved with Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity?
From 2000 through 2009 I was the Christian Service Coordinator for Monsignor Donovan High School (now Donovan Catholic) in Toms River. I developed an extensive “living faith program” for the students of Donovan which included outreach and collaboration with local non-profits. Jess Blau, a junior at Donovan HS, had the vision of starting a Campus chapter at Donovan which “triggered” my interest, as I was already working as a community activist for the homeless in Ocean County which included being on two Mayoral Homeless Councils for Toms River and Lakewood.
I also integrated an outreach service component into my Christian Service honors class that included working at Tent City with Minister Steve and the Bread of Life Pantry in Toms River as well as Ocean County Hunger Relief, Interfaith Hospitality, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ocean County, and numerous other non-profits. I loved my job at Donovan as I am committed to inspiring young people to step up and “Build Louder” (advocacy), as well as to “make a difference”. I became a Board Director, which was fine, but I was struggling with all the “need” that was in our community and felt compelled to do more.
At this time, NOHFH was also at a crossroads as the organization looked towards the future. Traditionally, they were building one affordable home a year, but the community called for more. It was at this time that I was approached by the Board leaders to consider submitting my resume to be the first Executive Director. Seven years later, we have grown from a $250,000 budget to a $1.1 million dollar budget. We have built 16 affordable homes and repaired over 125 houses for low-income households, seniors, veterans, disabled, and single-parent households through our Brush with Kindness Program (I implemented this program into our organization on April 10, 2010).
Additionally when Sandy hit in October of 2012 NOHFH said “YES,” we will be a leader in the rebuild efforts. We embarked upon rebuilding 60 homes for low-income Sandy victims through three years of collaborative partnerships with the American Red Cross, Hurricane Sandy NJ Relief Fund (First Lady’s Fund), 12-12-12 Concert, and many other funding partners.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is seeing (and feeling) the impact of our mission on the community. Through our housing programs, we make the quality of life for our low-income neighbors safer and more dignified. We bring hope in times of despair and joy and happiness when people have stopped believing. We impact the homeowners but we also impact the volunteers, the neighbors, the faith community, the businesses, donors, sponsors, etc. because when you give you receive. Your heart grows and you feel compelled to do more and as we all know…it takes a Village.
What kind of career did you initially go to school for?
My career following Syracuse University was hotel/restaurant management. I loved the challenges and I loved the quick pace. Like non-profit, there was always a bunch of balls in the air to catch and more importantly, there were many employees that needed to feel that their job was important and that they were important. Often in “big business,” managers lose sight of their employee’s self-worth and they treat them indifferently. As the youngest General Manager for Prime Motor Inns Inc. (Franchise Management Company), I was determined to put value to every person’s job from the housekeepers to the Sales Manager.
Do you have any words of wisdom that have followed you throughout your career?
I guess my words of wisdom are…” treat all people with respect regardless of their position, pay scale, education…take the time to listen and learn from your employees, volunteers, community as you may think you know the solution but sometimes you don’t…be patient, kind and compassionate to all and learn from your heart”.
Do you have any especially touching, funny, or inspiring stories you can tell us about some of the families you’ve worked with?
I could tell you thousands of touching, funny and inspiring stories which is the reason I love my vocation. (I can’t even call it a “job” as I really feel blessed to be in this role at this time in my life).
Story 1: Margie was caring for her dying husband when a huge tree collapsed on her Bayville home. For weeks she piled chairs in an effort to keep the roof from collapsing. When we received a call from her “advocate,” Trudy, Margie’s husband had died and Margie had fallen into a deep depression and was homeless. Trudy took her into her home and set out to find help to rebuild her home – Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity.
At this time, we were just exploring the concept of repairing homes. We had not built a budget for repairs and now we were faced with the reality that if we didn’t repair Margie’s home she would be left permanently homeless. I called the Mayor and the local newspaper and told Margie’s story. Before we knew it, a village of helpers came from everywhere to lend a hand. We had tree-cutters, roofers, electricians, Girl Scouts, civic service organizations, students…and the Mayor dressed in his work clothes loading the “donated dumpster.”
We worked for three months without the funds but with the community and on December 25th Margie came home. We call it the “Miracle on 40 Bell Street” and to this day we all believe in miracles. Due to the success of this pilot project, we were able to go forward and help Maria; a disabled mother, and her son who lost their garage and part of their kitchen to a house fire. They sacrificed paying their homeowner’s insurance so that they could pay their mortgage, taxes, medical bills, and still have money for food thus they did not have funds to rebuild their home. We put up the sign once again; HELP US TO REBUILD THIS HOME and the miracle happened…the Village!
Story 2: Anthony is confined to a wheelchair. For three years he lived trapped in a home that was not ADA accessible and did not have doorway modifications that allowed for a wheelchair. Anthony could not sleep in his own bed and struggled every time he tried to get out of his wheelchair to go into the bathroom.
When I met Anthony his home health aide told me that Anthony loved his backyard and that she had high hopes that he would once again enjoy it. With the funding and volunteers from Wells Fargo, we embarked upon enlarging the doorways and applying grab bars so that Anthony could regain the usage of his entire home, but more importantly, that he could regain his freedom and dignity.
Story 3: “The Little Engine That Could.” When Superstorm Sandy hit, NOHFH was not quite yet positioned for major critical home repairs but the need was here and the community was calling our name. We attended many county meetings including Ocean County Long Term Recovery and soon understood that we were desperately needed to rebuild homes for our low-income neighbors. They were already down on their luck and now Sandy…we needed to restore their homes and their hope.
Fortunately, we received significant funding from some of the major organizations such as Hurricane Sandy NJ Relief Fund (HSNJRF; the First Lady’s Fund), American Red Cross, 12-12-12 Concert (Robin Hood Foundation), and others. We quickly set up our strategic plan and before we knew it we had three solid construction teams out in the community rebuilding under the leadership of Joseph “Dick” Read, a retired civil engineer. Close to four years later and 60 homes re-built, we were honored when Kim Frawley, the ED of HSNJRF, congratulated NOHFH on our work, calling us the “Little Engine that Could…and Would…and Did.”
If you could have any superpower to help you do your job better, what would it be?
I don’t think there’s a superpower, but maybe a super leader like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. They exemplify what a true “superpower” is to me because they inspire people to live to help each other rather than simply to live for their own personal gain. They symbolize unity and stand for peace amongst everyone no matter what color, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation…just simply “one village.”
Which items are you most frequently in need of at the ReStore?
ReStore Wish List: pots & pans, “working” small appliances such as toasters, coffee makers, blenders, microwaves, large appliances (refrigerators, washers, dryers).
What are some of the more unique items you’ve had donated?
Some of the most unique “donated items” range from antique dining room sets to beautiful ornate couches to amazing artwork. The store is truly an eclectic hub of treasures at a very affordable price – and we are “green” also, keeping stuff out of the landfills.
Which three traits would someone need to be able to do your job?
Three traits necessary to do my “job”: patience, multi-tasker, good communicator.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting involved with Habitat for Humanity?
Habitat changes lives and communities. The people in Habitat World are the best type of people ever…they are compassionate and caring individuals that truly live to make a difference in the world. “Habititis” is absolutely the best feeling ever and it’s contagious!
What’s coming up next for you?
Providing that I can continue to recruit “like-minded people” like Adam Binder to walk with me in leadership, I will be here for as long as God allows. We still have a lot of work to do…finally we are becoming a solution for Housing Trust Funds and we are obtaining donated lots, but we still have many people in need of our services. Too many people live in substandard housing right here in Ocean County and it can’t be overlooked…we need to have our local and state government officials committed to the elimination of poverty housing and the building of affordable housing and we must be a voice for social change!
To learn more about Suzan and Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity, please visit nohfh.com.