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Juggling act is no small task for the executive director of Habitat’s Almost Heaven affiliate

Michelle Connor is leading her affiliate to new heights while answering to “Mom” from 11 children
By Bill Sanders

 

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Michelle Conner, executive director, and John Conner, development director of Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity. Photo by Steffan Hacker.

   

Michelle Connor’s easy smile warms the room.

“I’m madly in love with that guy,” she said nodding at her husband, John.

“I’m kind of fond of her too,” deadpans John.

That the Connor’s divine love story started at Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity just seems fitting. The affiliate got its name long before Michelle became its executive director and John its development director. Still, for these two to be working side by side borders on miraculous.

“Let’s just say we’re still very much dependent on God’s grace and provision,” Michelle said.

Learning to accept grace
When you have 11 children, you tend to need a little grace now and again. And Michelle, in particular, has had to learn more about accepting grace than giving it.

“There was a time when I was unable to receive,” Michelle said. “I was mad at God, bitter and didn’t have a spirit that could receive blessings.”

In 1997 Michelle had her first interaction with Habitat. . Her house, the one she shared with her first husband and seven children, burned to the ground.

“The local Habitat came and helped clean up after the fire,” she said. “We started a dialogue and they wanted me to apply to become an HFH partner and get a new house. I was pregnant with my eighth child at the time. And I said no.”

It’s hard for Michelle, who was a midwife and homemaker, to think about saying no to that first offer now.

“I tell you this, it makes me be able to relate to families in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to. We had just moved in and had spent every penny to convert the old, rundown farmhouse to what I thought was going to be our forever home.

“I had hit rock bottom and when Habitat offered, I was not ready to receive anything. I was content for us to live in the barn, but I wasn’t going to leave the farm.”

The turning point
Turns out, she hadn’t hit rock bottom. Not long after the fire, her 15-month old baby died of congenital heart failure. And not long after that, her marriage ended.

“Like so many couples that experience the loss of a child we didn’t make it as a couple after that,” she said.

Habitat approached her again. Please, become a partner family, the affiliate urged. Let us help you.

OK, Michelle said. And the trajectory of her life changed forever.

Giving back
“I was exposed to thousands of volunteers and none of them questioned me about the decisions I’d made in my life or why I needed help. They offered unconditional love and help. I had never had that growing up in religion. I saw God as judgmental and here He was using the things that had happened in my life to draw me out of that perception and into an understanding of who He really is.”

Michelle developed her own need to give back. So she went to the then-executive director of the Almost Heaven affiliate and said she’d do whatever volunteer work he needed. He sent her home with a packet of information on a grant, and asked her to take a crack at writing a proposal.

“He told me we needed $190,000 to buy the land and build four homes. So I went home and wrote a grant that asked for $190,000.”

Turns out, the direction she was given was incomplete. Or maybe she just heard it wrong. This funder had never given more than $10,000 for any single grant, the executive director told her – after she had sent in the request for the whole amount.

“I knew I had blown it,” Michelle said. “I had this one chance to show how grateful I was and to help them out, and I blew it.”

Then the check came.

“It was funded 100 percent,” she said. “We got the $190,000. I took it to the affiliate and they offered me a job.”

Becoming a different kind of member of the Habitat family
The next year, she became executive director. And she met this Americorps Vista worker John Connor who wanted a job. She hired him as director of community relations and fundraising.

“John fell in love with the work,” she said, but that’s not all he fell in love with.

“Our relationship transcended the workplace and we fell in love and were married in 2002,” John said.

John left Habitat for a year, but the board asked him back with the understanding that both he and Michelle would answer to the board.

Growing capacities
Under Michelle’s leadership, the Almost Heaven affiliate has gone from a staff of three to a staff of 14. In 21 years, the affiliate has built 100 homes. It has gone from building one or two houses a year to building 14 homes this year and performing repairs on 15 more.

Michelle decided early on that if her board saw enough in her, a program recipient, to make her the CEO of the affiliate, then she was going to respond by exceeding those expectations.

“My vision should be bigger than what our community was supposedly capable of,” she said. “We were not going to make a real impact building one house a year. If your dream is big enough, facts don’t matter. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have the resources. The need was there.”

Almost Heaven plans to build 100 more houses in the next 10 years, and as a Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative affiliate, it will work with a variety of other housing products such as rehabs, A Brush With Kindness and Critical Home Repair. And they are also committed to doing the work of community development.

“We’re committed to doing more than we’ve done in the past,” Michelle said.

Managing a family this size, and working a fulltime job, would be impossible if not for two things: organizational skills, both innate and learned, and older kids willing to do their part in taking care of the little ones.

And as for the Connor family, are 11 kids enough?

“We’ll see,” she said. “God has done a better job at directing my life than I could, so I’ll leave that up to him too.”

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