Profile: Freedom Builders

REGION – Skip Brown rebuilds lives. The executive director of Freedom Builders, an organization that improves the homes of people living in poverty, Brown was not too long ago livig a very different life than those whom he now serves.

He had a position as a Midwest manufacturers rep – a very lucrative job. He was also volunteering his time to a youth ministry. Coming back with a youth group from a trip out east, he had a feeling that God had a different plan for him – to serve people in poverty.

Brown went into the Department of Human Services (DHS) and asked if they needed his volunteer help. They referred him to Father Fred. Sitting in Father Fred's office, he explained this thing God was calling him to do. But, he didn't know if there was any need for it.

"I asked him if he thought there was a significant need for housing renovation assistance in the general Traverse City area," Brown explained. "His comeback was, 'Are you stupid or what?' And it wasn't offensive, because you knew the heart of the guy. He said, 'I can put you to work tomorrow.'"

"I literally did go to work the next day, but I only intended to do volunteer renovation part-time. I planned to continue my regular job, but in very short order, God had a another plan. I was only employed for another 30 days and then my job was completely gone."

That left the Browns – his wife was an integral partner – with just their vision for a ministry. Skip and Janet started the ministry without any organization – they didn't know anything about 501(c)(3)s. They just started serving the community, renovating crisis conditions in low-income housing, spending what little personal money they had. The Browns had gotten to a place where he was going to have to get a job to keep the ministry going, when Freedom Ministries stepped up and offered him a paying renovation job for one of their projects.

After spending two and a half years under Freedom Ministries' umbrella, they went out on their own. They call their organization Freedom Builders – a compassionate ministry. Skip Brown is the executive director of the organization and Jeff King is the project manager – the rest of the ministry is filled with volunteers.

In the first few years of their existence, Freedom Builders was able to accomplish 40 to 50 projects a year. In the last several years that number has grown to well over 150 yearly projects in nearly 12 years – renovating homes from the foundation to the roof and everything in between.

Habitat for Humanity is also a Christian organization, but it builds new houses from the ground up. Home Stretch, another housing program, is a non-profit regional developer of affordable housing. Freedom Builders is different – 75 percent of their projects are renovations of manufactured housing.

Brown insists that Freedom Builders is not out to hurt local contractors or businesses. Since their clients do not have the money to replace a roof, remodel a kitchen or bathroom or install new windows, contractors and businesses have not lost business – it wouldn't have been there anyway.

"Our average client is a single mom, making a minimum wage of $7.40 an hour or slightly above," Brown says.

Clients are referred to Freedom Builders by government agencies or non-profits. Sometimes, the referring agency is able to pay for the material costs. Only one staff person is in the field on a daily basis, given that 90 percent of all of their renovation work is done with volunteer labor.

"The agencies know that our workload is well beyond what we can get done, so they rarely send us someone who isn't in terrible, desperate straits," Brown says. "Our clients are one step away from being homeless."

"In the process of renovating the homes of those in poverty, the other thing we hope happens is that volunteers look at people in poverty differently then they did before they volunteered."

Brown and the volunteers work to keep a relationship going forward after the repairs are done with the people they've helped. The purpose? to let them know someone continues to care.

Freedom Builders has grown, partly because more families are in desperate straits and some of the significant programs that helped people at the poverty level before are no longer available. Freedom Builders is trying to fill the gap.

Brown has found creative ways to acquire materials the organization needed in the past. Now he faces a different challenge: finding the necessary materials to be able to put his volunteers to work – that is the challenge.

"It isn't a doom and gloom thing for me … that's the problem when we paint these huge pictures of poverty – I can't fix that. Nobody expects me to," Brown says. "But how significant an impact we can have by saying, 'I can make a difference in one person's life.'" BN