On this week’s podcast, Marcus chats with Courtney Rouse-Heinz with Habitat for Humanity. Courtney is a Mobile native who went to Murphy and USA and like many of our podcast guests, wandered away for a little bit but came back quickly! From working in treatment facilities to moving up the ladder at Habitat for Humanity, she is now the Executive Director for the Southwest Alabama division. Tune in and listen or read on MobileAL.com.
Courtney: Hi, I'm Courtney Rouse-Heinz, I'm with Habitat For Humanity of Southwest, Alabama.
Marcus: Well, it's good to have you on the podcast.
Courtney: Thanks for having me.
Marcus: Thanks to Hank for making the introduction.
Marcus: And of course, I think you kind of have to be living under a rock not to know what Habitat For Humanity is about. But, we'll get into that because I think there's a number of people that maybe don't know the inner workings of Habitat. But having said all that, we're all about the person. So, why don't you get us started by telling us a little bit about who you are? I forgot to even ask, you're the Executive Director of it, right?
Courtney: Correct, yeah.
Marcus: So why don't you give us a little bit of background on where you're from, where'd you go to school, how did you end up at Habitat?
Courtney: Well, it is a funny story. I grew up here in Mobile and I graduated from Murphy High School, and then I went to South Alabama where I graduated from South. And after graduation like a lot of kids, I didn't know really exactly what I was doing or where I wanted to go. I thought I would go into law school, but then I decided ...
Marcus: What'd you study at South then?
Courtney: Well, I double majored in political science and history.
Marcus: Okay, useful degrees.
Courtney: And I minored in criminal justice.
Marcus: Yeah, almost as useful as English.
Courtney: Right, absolutely. When you're a kid you don't think of anything that's relevant.
Marcus: Yeah, exactly.
Courtney: So, I didn't really know what I was gonna do and I put my resume online like a lot of people do and I got a phone call from a treatment facility in Huntsville Alabama and it was a wilderness camp for troubled teens and they said, "Look, we want you to come out and see what we're about." It really had nothing to do with what I'd studied and I never had any desire to really do that but I thought, why not? So I went out and I actually fell in love with the facility and the kids. So they hired me, and I did that for about 3 years. But my family is all down here and I was ready to come back home, so I came back home and worked at The Bridge, which is also a treatment facility.
Marcus: Yeah, I'm familiar with that.
Courtney: So I worked there for about a year, and it was a lot different. It's very short term, and I started seeing a lot of the kids coming into our program were gonna go right back into the living conditions that they had come from. It was a cycle.
Marcus: Which doesn't lend itself to getting permanent help.
Courtney: Right. I think that the people that are able to do that are astounding but it wasn't my cup of tea. It was very hard for me and I took it very personally every time a kid...
Courtney: Yeah, relapsed, and had to go. And so I started thinking about, well, there are a lot of really good kids with a lot of family support, what if they were able to get out of those neighborhoods and get into a better situation.
Courtney: And so, that let me to Habitat and I thought, you know, that sounds like something that I would be doing that. I would be helping these kids get out of those areas, get into a more stable situation, and give them a chance to stay out of trouble. So I was actually hired on after Katrina in 2006.
Marcus: Gosh, I know, that's been a while ago.
Courtney: A long time, yeah. And so because of Katrina, our Habitat was getting a lot of funds and they need more help. So I was hired on as the family services person, the coordinator, and pretty much haven't left. I just slowly made my way up, until I guess I was the last one standing and they said, "Why don't you just run it?"
Marcus: That's cool. Often times, when we're highlighting the fact that when someone goes to school... If you're not familiar, the whole purpose of the podcast is to share the journey that people go through to end up where they're at because we find that, oftentimes, people maybe, they didn't go to college. Or if they did they're not doing what they went to go study and so on and so forth and that it's just really about the journey in life and where it actually takes you. So, tell people who may not be familiar with what Habitat does. Give them, kind of the, not the elevator pitch because that's too short, but give us the pitch on what Habitat is all about.
Courtney: Well, we are a Christian ministry and our sole purpose is to provide safe, decent, affordable housing and until about 10 years ago primarily what we would do is get a family, get a property, and build new construction homes and sell it to our families at 0 interest. Low income families. And traditionally these are families that can't get a mortgage, this is the only way that they're going to have the opportunity to be a homeowner. About 10 years ago we started switching gears and starting to see that there is a lot of other people who, maybe they own their own home but they can't keep it up because of their age or a lot of elderly people are on a fixed income. So we started kind of branching out so now we do critical home repairs, which is...
Marcus: Roofs and plumbing and stuff like that?
Courtney: Roofs, HVAC's are real big down here. Termite control down here as well. Things like that that are critical.
Marcus: Pause for just a second.
Marcus: This is a public service announcement. If you didn't know this, lower Alabama is the worst location in the continental U.S. for termites.
Courtney: I didn't know that for a fact, but I do not doubt it.
Marcus: The story that I have gotten from people is that because we are a port city, that the termites came in through the port and that they have just stayed here and manifested themselves in a great way. But for whatever reason, this is one of the worst areas in the continental U.S. for termites and specifically with the Formosan termites which are the ones that you see swarming around in the springtime.
Courtney: Yeah, in the lights and stuff.
Marcus: Yeah. Sorry, not to get off topic, but I think a lot of people don't know that, and just how damaging that can be to a home. My wife's in real estate and she's gone into fairly new homes where they've had to go in and basically reconstruct full corners of buildings and stuff like that because termites got in and completely ate it away.
Courtney: As you can imagine, a lot of the families that we're dealing with, they don't have any extra income. So most of them don't have a termite bond, so if something happens they have to live with it.
Marcus: That's it.
Courtney: So that is a big component. So the critical home repair is, traditionally we will do it for anyone, but right now most of our funds are coming in for veterans. So that's predominantly what we're doing our critical home repair. And we've also started to get into rehabs of basically kind of flipping like everyone else. And the importance of that one is that we don't have to go and ask for $80,000 to build a new house. We can go and ask for $10,000.
Marcus: Just for the supplies and then use volunteer labor to... Yeah.
Courtney: Right. So it makes it incredibly affordable and it's a lot easier for us to raise funds. It serves a family who is now in safe, decent, affordable housing. But it's also a big service to our community because that's one of the things, you know, the mayor's big initiative is cleaning up the blight and so I think that's our way as well of helping clean up the neighborhoods for those that want to. So we're able to do that in a lot less than traditionally a contractor would.
Marcus: So just to drive this point home. So, I have had a conversation with Kate Carver over at Westley Dumas, so they're in the heart of Crighton. And when she gave me a tour of their facility, it has been probably about a month now, she said that the average, and Kate, if I'm getting this wrong please forgive me, but the general thought will be there, that the average income of people in that area, was somewhere in the neighborhood of about $17,000-$18,000 a year and so when you start thinking about $17,000-$18,000 a year you're barely putting food on the table and putting clothes on your body at that point.
Marcus: So the idea of being able to make any kind of major renovations or things like that in order upkeep your home, that's not gonna happen.
Marcus: And so there are areas in Mobile, where, if you were to go, you know how everybody wants to give money to these third world countries, and it's an admirable thing, but the truth is, there is poverty in our area that would make people cringe. That people actually live in this type of condition. And so I'm passionate about that because I'm on the board for a Fuse project. And I don't know if you know anything about Fuse, but I think that we should probably have conversations offline about some of the things that Fuse has going on. Fuse is all about helping underprivileged children and so when it comes to Light of the Village or feeding the gulf coast or whatever we want to give to efforts that are gonna show an immediate return. We're not just giving money where there's a lot of money being given, so one of the things that we have going on right now is purpose built community which I want to talk to you about, but that's it. I don't want to say much more, because this is not about Fuse project. I only say that because there is a lot of work to be done here in Mobile, and it's organizations like Habitat that are making a huge difference in helping people live in conditions that aren't horrible. So, anyway, hats off to you.
Courtney: Well, I appreciate that.
Marcus: Bringing this back to some of the things that we talk about, then we'll get into a little bit more about Habitat, do you remember your first job?
Courtney: I mean, my first real job was probably...
Marcus: No, not your first real job, your first job.
Courtney: Yeah, vaguely.
Courtney: Yeah, I try to forget it but...
Marcus: So were there any lessons that you learned from that first job, and what was it?
Courtney: Probably humility. My first real job was at the Subway on University. My parents friends owned it and they would call on me, I was kind of like the in between, so all my friends were coming through and I'm like the Subway sandwich person. And I was embarrassed by it in the beginning. So, humility, I think was just that, you know... In line with what we're talking about with Habitat, there are women raising children working at Subway on minimum wage and it puts in perspective of what's really important. So I think humility was definitely one, but it also taught me that I didn't want to stop there. That I wanted to do more...
Marcus: It motivated you to do more with your life?
Courtney: It did. And not to care so much about what other people thought or myself. So, it was good.
Marcus: No, that's really cool. I appreciate you being honest in that. I have three boys, and one of the things that I want them to experience is, I want them to have a good first experience with their job, but if it's not a good experience I want them to be humbled to the point that they realize that they want to do more. Right? And we've been very fortunate with my oldest son, he works at the Moze over on the eastern shore and loves it, because the staff there, the management and the rest of the people that work there are very friendly, very nice, they fit with what you would want your sons first job to have. And so now son number two is getting ready to get his first job, and we're hopeful that he'll have the same experience, but I remember back in the day, I mean there were times where it was a very humbling experience. And I think you need that, you need to recognize, especially if you have aspirations, and you may not have aspirations at that point in time, but somehow that humbling becomes your aspirations for doing bigger and better things. So, you did not intend on going into the world of nonprofits, but do you remember the first time that you really had kind of an impact on somebody that made you think that maybe there's something to this and that it clicked and you were like, okay, this is what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life?
Courtney: Well, I think when I look back on things now, I think my parents raised me to be someone who was giving and, my mom is one of the most giving people to this day, and one of the things that I remember now, not necessarily what drove me into the nonprofit, but we were going on a summer vacation and there was a family at the rest stop that was needing money to put gas in their car to get wherever they needed to go.
Marcus: There's always that family.
Courtney: There's always that family and so my sister and I, my parents had given us a little spending cash, and we wanted to give our money to this family, and I remember, my dad probably won't appreciate me saying this, but I remember my dad saying, "Don't do that, they're just conning you." And my mom said to us, and my dad, she said, "It doesn't matter. If your spirit is giving to it, then that's what matters."
Marcus: It's the heart, yeah.
Courtney: And so I think that I was raised to be someone who would be in the nonprofit, just by those lessons that I later, as an adult, saw that they had taught me. Certainly at Three Springs, I still keep in touch with a lot of the kids that I helped. I don't know how much help I did, but...
Marcus: Probably more than you know.
Courtney: Probably. And you know, a lot of it made me grow up. I was regurgitating a lot of things that my mom and dad had said to me as a teenager and college student, and you know, I'm thinking, "Aw I can't believe I'm saying this!" And I believe it.
Marcus: That's great.
Courtney: And I think that really prepared me to see that there's more out there. One of the things that you were talking about, when I graduated college, and I've talked to a lot of my friends and stuff about it, but when I graduated college, I really thought that I would just kind of hang out and then people would just be offering me all of these jobs because I'm awesome, so somebody is gonna offer me the vice president of Regions bank and making $100,000 starting. So, talking about humble, then you start realizing that, wait a minute, that's not real life. You have to work really hard to get there. So I think that was a little bit too a part of just looking at other options. I didn't really know what was out there. Now that I've met so many people and see how many other job opportunities there are, there's a lot out there. You can't just be pigeonholed into, you know, I want to be a lawyer or I want to be a doctor or any of those other things. There's a lot out there.
Marcus: Yeah, you really don't know where life is going to lead you, and being open to that is part of the fun of that journey.
Courtney: Absolutely. And looking back, obviously for me it was absolutely the route I needed to take and I thank God every day that I followed it.
Marcus: That's really cool. Now if you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in the non profit world, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?
Courtney: I think learning a balance, for me personally I take things, this is my heart and I really believe in the mission and what I'm doing and sometimes you can take it home. Sometimes it can weigh. You can't help everybody. That was a long lesson for me to learn. I wanted to help everybody, I wanted to figure out how you could. But you can't. So I think just finding a balance in life. When you're doing something that you feel so passionate about and you think is so important, it's hard to just walk away from that sometimes and I think you have to, to be better.
Marcus: I mean, there's a life lesson there, isn't there though?
Marcus: Because I think most people are caring and generous folks but at some level you can't help everybody.
Marcus: I don't want to get into that but, as a business we've picked a couple of folks where we help. And I think that that's responsible. That's a good way of operating, but I also would like for people to think about that. You can't help everybody but if you're focused in what you do, you're gonna have a bigger impact in that focus area than you would if you just kind of haphazardly give. Like maybe you go and feed the homeless one day and then the next week at the Humane Society helping with the dogs and stuff like that. Focus in, you know, get it down. If you have a skill or a trade or can swing a hammer and you want to be involved in Habitat, do that, and make that your thing.
Courtney: Right, I agree.
Marcus: Is there somebody from the business world or the nonprofit world that motivates you?
Courtney: They didn't pay me by the way. But I hate to keep harping on my parents, but I think that that's a big...
Marcus: Sure, they paid you. They paid for your everything.
Courtney: That's true. Yes, they would totally disagree with that statement. I think that seeing that they're proud and the direction that I'm going and I don't want to let them down. So I think they motivate me everyday and then obviously my child and my husband are a huge part of me, but they believe in the mission too. So they're always motivating me. My son, every time he gets a little extra dollar, you know, he's 7 and he's like, "Here Mom, I want to donate that to Habitat."
Marcus: That's so cool.
Courtney: And so, it does, and it just makes you want to be better. But probably my mentor at Habitat is Chris Sayer, he's the owner of The Computer Doctor, and he's been with Habitat since I've been with Habitat as our IT person and then he came on our board and I really respect him for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that he stuck with Habitat. We had gone through some rough times and he helped pull us through it.
Courtney: And I think that he's somebody that motivates me and makes me want to do well for him as well.
Marcus: That's cool. Mobile is a town of nonprofits. Right?
Marcus: And so, even with Fuse, we have the Fuse Factory which is a coworking space for nonprofits. But one of the things that I often times encourage nonprofits is, you need to look to the business world because you have a product, you are a business, you have a story to tell and that story is how you motivate people to support.
Marcus: So you've obviously figured that out. Now, are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward? Besides Chris.
Courtney: Of course our board of directors. I think that what a lot of people don't understand, even our board that comes on, you know we actually have a board orientation, we're putting 6 new board members on tomorrow. It's what people don't understand is Habitat is a lot of things. So, we have a store, we're Restore, a construction store. So we have that side of us. We also service our own mortgages, so we are our own mortgage company. We close on houses. So we're a title company. We're social services. We help families. Even if we can't help them, we try to help them get somewhere. So we have so many different moving parts that, as you were mentioning, the business world is so important. I don't know everything about any of that stuff.
Courtney: So when you have a realtor on your board that can kind of help you in that part of it, and an attorney that can help you with your contracts. So you have a well rounded board. I think they're so important to us being successful. Without them and all of their knowledge in the business world they would be relying completely on mine, so that would be scary.
Marcus: That's good. If you are listening to this and you are the executive director or even working for a nonprofit, look at your board. What's missing? Every nonprofit has needs. Either contacts that people may have or specific skills that they may have. And so the more that you can put some thought into who's on your board, the better off that you'll be. And that's just something that I've learned over the last number of years as I've kind of been asked to sit on those kinds of boards. You look around and you definitely can tell on the boards where there was thought versus those where it's kind of like, we don't really have a whole lot of thought behind this.
Courtney: A warm body.
Marcus: Now, what's the most important thing that you've learned about running a nonprofit?
Courtney: Well, how much money it takes, I think. Going to businesses and corporations and organizations, individuals, asking for money to build a house or rehab a house for a veteran with a picture of the family. That's very...
Marcus: You don't play fair do you?
Courtney: No, not at all. I pull it all out if I've got to, right?
Marcus: She shows up with pictures of the family, people!
Courtney: Absolutely. I want y'all to know who you're helping, right? So all of that obviously I understood and what I didn't, I guess, is it's a lot harder to fund overhead. To pay for your building.
Courtney: To pay for your staff. The one thing that I wish more than anything is that I could pay my staff more than what we can afford to pay. They're phenomenal. I couldn't do it without them and obviously their hearts in it, that's why they're still with us. So I think that that was a little bit surprising to me, is that it's very hard to raise money for overhead and salary as opposed to the projects, which are great, but if you don't have a building and staff to do the work, then the projects don't matter.
Marcus: Yeah. That is a common theme, but I love what you, I give you a hard time about showing up with the picture, but the truth is, you've figured out how to tell a story.
Marcus: And so many nonprofits struggle with that. There's a book, and I think we've talked about it on previous episodes. As a matter of fact last weeks episode we talked about Story Brand, which is a book that Donald Miller wrote, and so if you are listening to this for the first time and you've not heard of that book, especially if you're at a nonprofit, I would highly suggest picking up that book, or listening to the podcast or both because Donald Miller, he's an author that's been in the Christian genre for at least a decade if not longer and he's switched from kind of writing non fiction personal accounts to writing books that are geared towards businesses. Helping them understand what their story is and I think nonprofits need to really kind of grasp that more than most.
Marcus: Well, tell people where they can find out more information.
Courtney: So, we have a website, it's habitatswalabama.org. I'd also like to give a shout out to our store, our Restore is at 3712 Airport Blvd. So we have all kinds of things that you can purchase.
Marcus: What's that next to?
Courtney: It's in the old Rooms To Go building. So it's one down from the new Rooms To Go building.
Marcus: Okay, very cool.
Courtney: Yeah, so we have all kinds of materials to purchase. Like I said, it's geared towards construction materials but we also have furniture and some of it's donated and used and some of it's new. So, therefor we do take material donations. So you can come check us out over there. We're around Monday through Saturday, 9 to 6. So those are some. We have Facebook and Twitter and all of that too that you can catch us on. Also, I did want to mention, we are having our 30 year anniversary HYP kick off down the street at the Cedar Social Club on September 8th.
Marcus: So, the PV is tied in with you at some level?
Courtney: They are. They are donating the band and the location for us so we're very grateful to them.
Courtney: We're looking for sponsors and obviously we are going to be selling tickets that will be $30 and it includes food and beer and wine and obviously the band.
Marcus: Did you say when that was?
Courtney: September 8th.
Marcus: September 8th, very good. Okay. And where can people, if they want to buy tickets to that, where can they do that?
Courtney: They can catch us on the website. We have a location there were they can buy the tickets. They can also Facebook us, come by, however you want to get to us, we'll make it happen.
Marcus: Smoke signal.
Courtney: Absolutely. We'll make it happen. We're really excited.
Marcus: Seriously, if you want to come, just like, send a carrier pigeon.
Courtney: I'll come to you. That's right, I'll come to you.
Marcus: Now I, also one of the things that we didn't highlight is Habitat relies very much on people that are willing to swing a hammer or that maybe have skilled trade, so if you're an electrician or a plumber or a carpenter or somebody along those lines, they are always in need of people that can help them do these things. And you mentioned HVAC, you know, if you're an HVAC or a roofer or something like that and you want to give back to your community, you've been given a skill, you know, use that skill to give back. So anyway, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?
Courtney: No, I do want to say thank you guys for having me. One of the things that is, for a nonprofit, free advertisement is wonderful. This is a skill that you're sharing with us, so we certainly appreciate that. We're very proud of the work that we're doing. There's a lot more to be done and you can bet that we're gonna be there and we're gonna get it done.
Marcus: Well, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey. It was great talking with you.
Courtney: Great talking to you, thank you.