Changing lives one house at a time with the Nevada County Habitat for Humanity |

Changing lives one house at a time with the Nevada County Habitat for Humanity

Nevada County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Debbie Arakel-Sheppard and Associate Director Lorraine Larson want people to know Nevada County Habitat for Humanity does not give away homes — Habitat families earn the homes.
Photo by Lorraine Jewett |

Voices of Nevada County Habitat for Humanity

Construction volunteers at Nevada County Habitat for Humanity are retired from a wide variety of professions, but share a common motivation.

“First, it’s the social aspect of being around a group of people focused on one thing. Second, it’s to be useful, to be of service. I want to put myself out there for others.” — John Shulse, retired teacher.

“There was a time when I would have qualified for a Habitat for Humanity house. I’ve done well in my later years, so now I want to give back.” — C.J. Cavet, retired from construction and facilities management.

“This is not a giveaway. When selected, the families do hundreds of hours of effort. When they move in, they have a good appreciation of their home, for us volunteers, and Habitat for Humanity. It’s a life changing experience.” — Steve Prather, retired psychologist.

“When you can see the results of your contribution as immediate as they are here, it’s a really wonderful experience. You can give money to an organization, but you don’t always know what happens to it. When you see these families and kids, it breaks your heart to hear about their living conditions and how they struggled before Habitat for Humanity.” — Andy Kramer, retired museum designer.

“I like the idea that the kids have a safe environment. For a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve had a room of their own. They don’t have to worry about moving every other week or living in garages. It may be the first time they have a dry room and don’t have to worry about leaks or broken windows.” — Claude Conley, 84-year-old retired construction worker who has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in California, Missouri, Louisiana, and Florida.

“The best three days of the week are working here at Habitat. I just love helping other people.” — Carl Wiggins, retired hospital pharmacist.

Contrary to a common misconception about Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit does not “give away” free homes.

The organization, made famous by President Jimmy Carter swinging hammers at Habitat jobsites throughout the world, does build homes with families who otherwise would not be able to afford them.

But the families earn their homes.

“A family isn’t given a house,” said Debbie Arakel-Sheppard, executive director of Nevada County Habitat for Humanity. “They help build and buy a house.”

Since 1996, Nevada County Habitat for Humanity has built 32 homes that now house 48 adults and 87 children.

Habitat homeowner families contribute 500 hours of sweat equity, some at the construction jobsite and some at Nevada County Habitat for Humanity offices. Even young children help by stuffing envelopes and writing thank you notes to donors.

Hard work pays off

Those sweat equity hours and a one percent cash contribution, constitute the down payment.

Families then assume the affordable principal-only mortgage, plus pay property taxes and insurance. Mortgage income pays forward to the next home, and the next, and so on.

Nevada County Habitat for Humanity houses range from two-bedroom, single-story homes to four-bedroom, two-story homes.

Crews of 12-14 volunteers work seven-hour shifts, three days a week, for about six months to finish a home. Prior construction experience isn’t required.

“We have volunteers from all walks of life,” said Frank Sobrero, Nevada County Habitat for Humanity construction committee chair. “When someone volunteers who is not skilled, we team them up with someone who is skilled.”

Sobrero has volunteered with Nevada County Habitat for Humanity for 15 years and serves as foreman on the jobsites. He said it’s never a problem getting enough volunteers.

“For example, we weren’t scheduled to work one day this week but we had to get prepared for trusses to be delivered,” said Sobrero, who retired from AT&T and two software development startups. “I made five phone calls and got five people. It’s that way all the time.”

Building more than homes

Strong bonds are forged as family members work alongside construction volunteers.

“The volunteers become the families’ extended family, and vice versa,” said Arakel-Sheppard.

Willing and eager volunteer labor builds the houses, but not a single nail can be hammered unless there’s enough money to buy building materials.

“The challenge is we have a lot of folks who think Habitat only needs construction volunteers,” said Lorraine Larson, Nevada County Habitat for Humanity associate director for the past nine years. “Yes, we need volunteer labor to keep costs down. But building supplies like those trusses over there cost money. We have to raise all our own funds.”

Nevada County Habitat for Humanity’s current project, Heritage Oaks, is a $3.2 million dollar, 1.7-acre development off Whiting Street in Grass Valley. Twelve homes are finished and occupied, with another four under construction or slated for construction.

“We bought the land for $250,000 in 2009, then secured a grant that helped us do the infrastructure, roads, and sewers,” said Arakel-Sheppard. “Fundraising does the vertical and builds the homes. We can’t build if we don’t have money to buy the materials.”

Habitat for Humanity International helps with business partnerships, obtains donated materials and appliances, and provides other resources, but the parent organization does not contribute financially to Nevada County Habitat for Humanity.


Nevada County Habitat for Humanity’s major fundraiser is its “Street of Dreams” dinner which grossed $86,000 this year.

The Habitat for Humanity ReStore on Loma Rica Drive is a nonprofit home improvement thrift store and donation center that generates $175,000 annually for Nevada County Habitat for Humanity.

Another fundraiser is an ongoing “Brick Campaign” in which donors purchase and customize bricks that will be used in a patio and community area at Heritage Oaks.

Habitat leaders note that all money raised is spent locally, supporting local businesses and professionals.

“Every donated dollar stretches a long way,” said Arakel-Sheppard, who has worked for Nevada County Habitat for Humanity for a decade.

“I love to see a family evolve from struggling to scrape by and making sacrifices to get basic needs met,” said Larson, “to becoming philanthropists, working on and raising money for the next family’s house. Life trajectories are changed.”

Nevada County Habitat for Humanity leaders say children blossom when they have a safe home they are proud of.

“Children who didn’t even have a place to study before moving into their Habitat home are now graduating from college,” said Arakel-Sheppard. “They couldn’t have afforded college tuition before. Single mothers have gone back to school, and some have started their own businesses. Homes are built, and so are empowerment and confidence.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at

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