– Words by Angela Cowan Photographs by Lia Crowe
When Sharon Conway first encountered Habitat for Humanity almost a decade ago on Vancouver Island, she knew immediately she’d found one of the great passions of her life.
“It was pure luck,” she laughs when asked how she first became involved with the organization. Sharon, a certified human resources professional currently in private practice, was working at the time helping people transition back into the work force.
“My job was to help them figure out the next step in life,” she says. “Part of that program was to give people the opportunity to see different kinds of work, and to do that through volunteering.”
She’d actually never heard of Habitat for Humanity before, but when the organization showed up to do a presentation, she was blown away.
“My children were young, and we’d been working so hard to get into a home,” she remembers. “We couldn’t have done it if we hadn’t had help from my parents. And here was this organization doing it on a worldwide scale.”
Despite having four young children, foster children and a career to manage, Sharon knew she needed to be involved.
“At first, it was literally just coming out with my kids and sweeping up, and it was amazing, and my children loved it. [Habitat] quickly realized I was a lot more useful on the board,” she says with another laugh. “We all serve in the way that we’re best suited.”
Sharon, who’d had a wealth of experience in the construction and housing industries as a human resources professional—often involved in building affordable rental properties across the country—was able to bring that knowledge to Habitat for Humanity. She served on the board on Vancouver Island for three years, and then a work opportunity arose for her and her husband in the Okanagan. With their four kids grown and away at university or travelling the globe, Sharon and her husband relocated to Kelowna in 2014. They both fell in love with the area, and very soon Sharon was invited to be part of the board for Habitat Okanagan.
Several years later, she took a sabbatical for a life-changing experience.
“I went overseas with Habitat to do a bucket-list build in Cambodia,” she says, explaining she was part of a team of 200 people from all over the world. “We got together, and we found out immediately we were all very passionate about Habitat, and we instantly became a team. It was amazing. I’m excited to be able to do it again one day.”
Her warmth and enthusiasm for what she does is palpable. Sharon seems to have that rare gift of inspiring those she’s with to actually feel her passion, her commitment, and her heart-driven ambition to change the world for the better.
“Habitat for me is the most holistic organization to be involved in. We create homes, and fundamentally, that’s incredibly important. These homes create community, and in doing that we create stability,” she explains. “We know that children who grow up in these homes—the statistics have been done—are more likely to graduate, more likely to go onto post-secondary education and more likely to contribute back into the community. When we have families that move in, we’re seriously investing into the social fabric in our communities. We’re holding onto that middle class.”
In fact, she explains, Habitat for Humanity generates $175,000 of benefits to society per home, through reduced reliance on social housing and food banks, better educational and employment outcomes and improved health.
“Research shows that for every dollar donated to Habitat, four dollars in social benefits are returned to the community.”
And then there’s the environmental factor, with literal tons of housing materials being diverted from landfills through the ReStore program, she adds.
Sharon, now chair of the board for Habitat Okanagan, lights up as she talks about the current project: a complex of 12 townhouses in Lake Country. Several years ago, a piece of land became available for purchase to Habitat, and after navigating the rezoning and building permit hurdles, they were able to break ground early this year.
“It’s an ambitious enterprise to raise funds to build 12 homes all at once. It’s the biggest build we’ve ever done in the history of Habitat Okanagan,” she says. “But we still need to raise money to finish the build.”
Of the 12 townhouses, the first three are at the painting stage and their families will move in next April. The next three homes are currently at the foundation stage, and the last six—a four-plex and a duplex—are set to break ground early next summer.
“It’s a lovely little community, and it’s near schools,” says Sharon. “The children are so excited! They just did a tour and picked their bedrooms, and they walked the little distance to their school.”
For those who are moved to get involved, there are a number of ways to lend a hand.
The second annual “Jingle Bell Build” gingerbread photo contest kicks off in November, raising funds through “build permits” and gingerbread house kits, with money going to the Lake Country build. Anyone wanting to get more “hands on” can volunteer on site, either with their own team or by joining an existing group. Or people are invited to create their own fundraising event.
The easiest way to make a difference, though, says Sharon, is to just spread the word.
For Sharon, getting involved with Habitat for Humanity was one of the best things she’s done.
“From environmental impacts to social change, to the grassroots of a family who has security and children who have a home and can plant roots,” she says, warmth filling her voice. “It’s no wonder Habitat is my passion.”