Quilcene, Washington — a tight-knit community of 600 people and home to two of the world’s largest shellfish producers — is hugged by lakes, mountains, beaches and rainforest.
The community is small, just 10 square miles two hours outside of Seattle. Jobs are in short supply. Many residents live in homes in desperate need of repair.
Times weren’t always this tough. The community once thrived, thanks to the logging industry. The past twenty years, however, haven’t necessarily been kind, even if the people of Quilcene are. Kind — and motivated. Along with Habitat for Humanity of East Jefferson County, they are working hard to put Quilcene back on the map.
A catalyst for Quilcene
Two years ago, Quilcene residents were beginning to mobilize and discuss how they could partner to find solutions to the lack of local amenities. At the same time, Habitat East Jefferson County was seeking a way to help revitalize struggling communities outside Port Townsend, where most of its work has taken place.
When the Habitat staff learned in June 2010 that they had been selected to be a pilot community for Habitat for Humanity International’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, the stars aligned. The Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative works to improve neighborhoods through local community partnerships and the expansion of housing services, including home repair and preservation.
“We can’t build our way out of poverty, and we sure can’t fulfill all of the need for affordable housing alone,” says Cassandra Johnson, Habitat East Jefferson County’s resource development coordinator. “The NRI program’s focus on partnerships, resident engagement and community development really excited our affiliate.”
Habitat staff spent the better part of 2010 and most of 2011 embedding themselves in Quilcene. Residents received personal phone calls inviting them to forums to discuss the community’s immediate needs, Habitat hosted an organizational partnership meeting with key community groups, and Habitat volunteers went door to door, visiting all 158 occupied homes in the core project area.
Jane Laptad was one of those Habitat volunteers. “Not a single person said they didn’t want to talk to me. In fact, people readily embraced Habitat because of its reputation,” Laptad says. “I had to explain what NRI was, and the people who didn’t need new houses but did need a porch or roof fixed were definitely interested in hearing more.”
Armed with the community survey and confident in a shared vision for Quilcene’s future, Habitat set a goal of 4 to 6 NRI projects completed by the end of 2013. Zero-interest loans are offered to qualifying families for minor repairs and preservation work — roofs, siding, trim, porches, gutters and drainage issues.
Once projects are complete and families begin to pay back their loans, payments will be used to cover upfront costs of other NRI repairs. Additional financial support comes from individual donors, local businesses and the Habitat Store. (In Washington state, Habitat ReStore resale outlets are known as Habitat Stores.)
Jane Laptad, the Habitat volunteer who helped conduct the door-to-door surveys, is a regular at what has become something of a local hot spot. “The Habitat Store is such a blessing for the community,” she says. “People have access to items they desperately need, like baby furniture and car seats, at an affordable price. I just love going in there to see what’s new. It’s more than a store; it’s a place for people to gather.”
Every cent the store makes goes into a fund for future NRI projects in Quilcene. “There’s a lot of energy in and around Quilcene,” says volunteer Kathi Boyker. “Amazing things are happening now that we are all combining our talents, know-how and past job experiences!”
‘Everything they wanted for and from their town’
Linda Herzog is part of that combined effort.
In 2009, Herzog and her husband began to call Quilcene home. Little did she know that just one year later, she’d spearhead a grassroots community group called Quilcene Conversations.
“I attended a meeting in town about the need for a gas station,” Herzog remembers. “People didn’t just talk about gas, though. They talked about everything they ever wanted for and from their town. I knew it would be a mistake to let all those ideas linger and disappear.”
A retired city manager, Herzog decided the town needed to keep talking. She and Cass Brotherton (who went on to open a gas station) organized a series of meetings in people’s living rooms to keep the conversations going. The meetings resulted in a blueprint for Quilcene’s future — beautification, signage, economic development and job creation — and a partnership between the group and Habitat. It isn’t uncommon for Habitat volunteers also to be active members of Quilcene Conversations.
“In a community like Quilcene, it’s not possible for one organization to do it all,” Johnson says. “You have to engage the residents and leverage relationships with other organizations in order to be successful.”
“Habitat’s presence made a huge difference,” says Herzog. “If it weren’t for Habitat for Humanity, we wouldn’t be where we are today in terms of community building.”
The biggest revelation to come out of the Habitat survey was how much Quilcene residents love Quilcene. If given the choice — despite vacant houses, abandoned buildings and all the challenges — 88 percent of survey respondents would continue to live there. Quilcene is loved, it is home, and thanks to partnerships like the ones that Habitat has helped to grow, it is improving every day.