Habitat for Humanity

Volunteers of Brunswick County Habitat for Humanity are hanging up their hard hats with the belief the affiliate is no longer fulfilling its mission to build affordable homes for people in need.

In interviews with multiple former volunteers, many described being “fed up” with the affiliate’s pace to finish homes while the pre-selected families wait years for their keys.

One new build started in the Eagle Pines neighborhood of Southport on September 21, but the last times Brunswick Habitat closed on houses were July 2019 and February 2019, according to a log of the affiliate’s activity. Two homes in Bolivia and Southport received certificates of occupancy this summer and are therefore considered move-in ready, but neither has closed with the promised homeowners. The log also showed a Shallotte house is almost ready for the same certification.

When asked why the organization only finished one house in the last fiscal year, Brunswick County Habitat Executive Director Carlo Montagano largely focused on the affiliate being in a growth phase.

“We spent a lot of energy building capacity so we can be a mature nonprofit,” he said.

He described how the affiliate is transitioning into a “more professional” organization by growing its board of directors to 15 members and hiring new office staff so that it no longer relies on volunteers for tasks such as grant writing. There are now five office employees and a director of ReStores, which are stores operated by local Habitat for Humanity organizations that accept donations and sell home improvement items to the public.

“I want to remind you that growth for any organization is never linear, especially when implementing change. We are certainly implementing change,” Montagano said in an email. “Lastly, we are a nonprofit focused on families, community and hope. The work that we do is much greater than simply the number of homes we produce.”

But some individuals formerly involved with Habitat interpret the administration’s changes as using the operation as a resume builder.

“More time, more effort, more energy has been spent on building a corporate foundation rather than building homes for people who desperately need them,” said former foreman Jude Herges. “Habitat for Humanity’s mission statement is we build affordable homes for people who need them. It doesn’t say anything in there about ‘we build empires.’”

In addition to its home production, volunteers complained of the management displaying a lack of appreciation for the crews and firing their site leaders over the last year. At least 17 volunteers are now stepping away from Habitat.

The discontent among volunteers largely began with the hiring of Montagano in February 2019, followed a year later by the resignation of Jack Mcnear who, at the time, was Brunswick Habitat’s only employee with a contractor’s license.

Mcnear admitted he wasn’t getting along with Montagano when he quit. He explained issues ranged from the affiliate’s decision to no longer provide the volunteers’ lunches to the number of homes that were being built compared to years past.

“My crew, for the most part, I can build three houses a year with them,” Mcnear said, “and he took over and we basically only built one house.”

Without Mcnear, the chapter could no longer build and construction halted for several months.

“We had all these people, both men and women, who are available to volunteer time, but weren’t allowed on job sites because there wasn’t a license available,” said Joe Wersosky, a former volunteer of about one-and-a-half years.

Habitat hired a subcontractor last spring to finish a home that was near completion in Shallotte. It fired longtime employee Herges and its construction manager in July.

Volunteer Bill James suggested Herges was terminated for “no cause other than the fact he questioned the authority.”

Montagano said that from now on, the affiliate only employs licensed contractors as site leads.

“Think of it as a lesson learned,” said Montagano. “If you have one person who does a specialized function that’s critical to your organization and that one person steps down ... you become vulnerable and work slows.”

Despite the frustration caused by the pause on construction and the loss of the site leaders, construction crew members still wanted to complete the charity’s mission. However, many chose to ultimately step down after two volunteers were “dismissed” from the organization.

In late July, Bruce Ivers and Craig Thompson presented a plan to the affiliate to build a Habitat home under the license of a general contractor who is their friend. The formal two-page proposal included the names of 12 volunteers who were willing to serve on the crew.

“My intent was simply to help another family here in Brunswick County,” said Ivers, who has worked at various Habitat affiliates for 25-plus years.

But Ivers received a response from Board of Directors President Christine Luciano telling him to seek out other volunteer opportunities.

“For whatever reason, they just thought it (the proposal) was in bad faith,” Ivers said.

Thompson, who has volunteered with the local Habitat for nearly four years, said during an in-person meeting with Luciano and Montagano, he was accused of trying to take over the chapter with Ivers.

“It still breaks our heart a little bit ‘cause we liked what we did,” Thompson said, “but it comes to a point in time, you just fold your tent and move on.”

Asked about the discussion with Thompson, Montagano said, “We did communicate that the proposal was not in alignment with the strategic direction of the affiliate.”

Joe Golden, a former volunteer of three years, called the nonprofit’s reply to the offer, “the opposite of the way a charity should conduct themselves.” He is part of the large group of volunteers who are now pursuing work with the Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry, and leaving Habitat behind.

“Most of us really just wanted to get back to doing what the charity was set up originally to do, which is get people into their homes,” Golden added. “We thought it was a bit of a shame.

“One or two homes a year just isn’t enough.”