The Habitat for Humanity office on Academy Street in Georgetown looks like any other professional space, complete with cubicles, a conference room, offices and a waiting area. What makes it unusual is that all the furniture was donated and most of the people one sees are volunteers. The walls are peppered with pictures of volunteers smiling next to proud new homeowners.
Executive Director Kevin Gilmore said he and other Sussex County Habitat for Humanity staffers and volunteers have not always had an office. They worked out of rental spaces, held meetings in local churches and had to organize home constructions for just one day a week. “My job was to create more opportunities for volunteers to get involved,” Gilmore said.
The office now houses nine staffers and 13 AmeriCorps volunteers. This year, Gilmore said, Sussex Habitat will sell 10 to 12 houses and complete 17 repair projects to help support working families who are financially unable to obtain a traditional loan from a bank.
Gilmore said he has his parents to thank for his humanitarian career. His father was a pastor; his mother a nurse. “I was surrounded by that mindset of service and helping people,” he said.
Though he never felt the urge to delve into the medical field, Gilmore said he considered becoming a pastor like his father. Then he found a different way to live out his faith. “For me, Habitat is a calling,” he said. “In a way, I have gone into ministry.”
Gilmore was not always sure where his passion for charity and travel would lead him. It took years of study, traveling thousands of miles from home and a pilgrimage across Spain to figure it out.
There and back again
Gilmore, 37, grew up in Milford, where he graduated from Milford High School. His first experience with Habitat for Humanity came during the week before he was scheduled to begin classes at Elon University in Elon, N.C.
Elon's Pre-Serve program allows incoming freshman to live on campus and meet other students before the semester begins while participating in a volunteer program. Gilmore and small group of his peers volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. “At the time, I didn’t know that would become my career,” he said.
Gilmore said he keeps in contact with many of the volunteers from his first experience with Habitat. “I think that volunteering is an activity that can bring people together in really unique and special ways,” he said.
When school started, Gilmore said, he began running student volunteer programs. “I jumped right in,” he said.
By his senior year at Elon, the college hired Gilmore to work as coordinator of service learning. Getting his own office on campus made Gilmore a rare student. “That was my first job,” he said.
An excitement for languages also circled Gilmore’s young adulthood. “My desire for language started in high school,” he said.
In college, Gilmore minored in Spanish and honed his skills during a study abroad trip to Northwestern Spain. He said the experience gave him the travel bug.
After graduation, the university asked Gilmore to stay on as a staff member. “But I wanted to travel,” he said. “I decided I wanted to see as much of the world as possible.”
Over the course of a year, Gilmore backpacked through Europe and traveled to Curtin University in Western Australia to help the school start a volunteer program modeled after the program at Elon.
In 1998, Gilmore traveled to Guatemala, where he lived for four years, the only foreigner in a local Habitat for Humanity group. “It really became part of who I am,” he said. “It was the highlight of my life to serve with such incredible people.”
Leaving Guatemala in 2002, Gilmore set out on a spiritual journey. “I was at a time of transition in my life,” he said.
Gilmore traveled back to Europe and set out on a month-long pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. The route, known as the Way of Saint James, has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for thousands of years.
Gilmore said the walk gave him time to reflect and deepened his faith. “It solidified my joy of people and exploration and new experiences,” he said.
Gilmore returned from his spiritual journey, and his next step would solidify his career path. He enrolled in University of Delaware and eventually earned a master’s degree in public administration. “I thought, ‘This is the work I want to be in,’” he said. “Doing it in Delaware was fantastic.”
After graduation, Gilmore heard Sussex County Habitat for Humanity was looking to hire an executive director. Gilmore said he had never been an executive director, and Sussex Habitat had never employed one. “It was a good match,” he said. “They really had a vision to do more.”
Gilmore took the job Sussex County Habitat and was thrilled to find out the small branch had ties to Guatemala and had funded construction of many houses in his former country of residence.
Last year, nine Sussex Habitat volunteers and staff traveled to Guatemala for the first time to build a home. One of the volunteers was a Guatemalan native, who now owns a home in Georgetown because of Habitat for Humanity. “It was a real testimony for the people there,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore has held the position for eight years now. A year and a half ago, he married Heidi Gilmore, a Georgetown land use attorney, whom he met through mutual friends.
Gilmore loves working for Habitat for Humanity. “They’ve given me much more opportunity than I ever deserved,” he said. Gilmore said the organization has allowed him to meet a wide range of people, from presidents to farmers. “I’ve just been exposed to people of all levels of society in many different societies,” he said.
Since Gilmore began working as executive director for Sussex Habitat, the organization has expanded its presence. “I’ve been a part of everything,” he said.
Four years ago, Sussex Habitat established its ReStore, a retail facility in Georgetown that houses building surplus and home furnishings.
Everything in the 13,000-square-foot ReStore was donated. “We either put it into a house, or we sell it and use the money to build houses,” Gilmore said. He said Habitat always welcomes more donations and offers free pick up of the items. Donors get a tax deduction for their unused merchandise. “It’s a win-win,” Gilmore said.
Students from Delmarva Christian High School are working to frame the House That ReStore Built, sponsored entirely by profits from ReStore sales.
In June, Sussex Habitat will organize a Blitz Build, which Gilmore said is one of his favorite events. For one week, contractors volunteer their skills to construct houses for the less fortunate. During the first Blitz Build in 2006, six builders erected three houses in one week. “It was one of those extremely memorable experience,” Gilmore said. “One of our goals is to unite the community through these projects.”
A Brush With Kindness is a program that tackles smaller projects. Volunteers work one or two days to paint the outside of a home or repair a front porch. Gilmore said the program is another way to help working families. “They own the house, but they’re unable to maintain it,” he said. Sussex Habitat has 17 Brush With Kindness projects lined-up this year, Gilmore said.
For information or to volunteer with Sussex County Habitat for Humanity, visit sussexcountyhabitat.org.