Celebrating 25 Years of Service with Amanda Brewer
By John Melingagio
Twenty-five years is a significant milestone, especially when serving the community through nonprofit leadership.
In a recent sit down with Habitat for Humanity of Omaha CEO Amanda Brewer, she reflected on her 25-years with the community organization that builds equity in people to help them achieve the American Dream – owning their own home.
It is refreshing and rare for a leader to come up through the ranks in the Omaha nonprofit community, let alone begin as a volunteer. “Habitat chose me,” Amanda said. “I didn’t have a plan to work for Habitat for Humanity, but I knew I wanted to serve. Habitat was the first organization that said, ‘Yes.’ It felt like a calling.”
That “yes” led Amanda to leave her home in Chicago and become a full-time volunteer in Georgia. “It was great being a volunteer. I lived in volunteer housing in Americus, Georgia, with hundreds of volunteers. I had a job (unpaid), and I had a desk.”
While helping recruit staff to work for Habitat internationally, Amanda’s boss left the organization. The next thing she knew, she was doing staffing and recruitment for the entire organization. “It was just me. I was 24 years old, and my only experience was working at a staffing company in Chicago,” she said. “It was such a gift to help in that way.”
Her work led to a paid job and eventually a move to Omaha, where she could be closer to her family. It was 1999.
Habitat Omaha was small back then. The Omaha nonprofit, founded in 1984, recently completed its 100th home build and had fewer than a half-dozen paid staff members, but it was significant in building grassroots in the community.
In 2005, another “calling” came. Amanda had left the employ of Habitat Omaha but continued to volunteer. She joined Gallup, another organization she valued and respected. Shortly after she left, members of the Habitat Omaha Board came calling. They wanted her to become the next CEO.
Amanda was unsure. “I was young and never officially managed anyone. I barely knew how to read a financial statement, and I wanted to make sure I made the right decision for an organization I loved and cared about,” she said.
“Being a person of faith, I kind of made a deal with God, thinking, ‘If You want me to do this, send me the right people, and I will take the job.’ It’s funny, but all the right people have been here at the right moment to do special things.”
The rest is history. About 2,200 families earned homeownership or home improvement opportunities; Habitat Omaha families generated nearly $1 million in property tax revenue and the Habitat Omaha footprint now includes several surrounding counties. Add to this a first-time endeavor, Bluestem Prairie, a multi-generational community that by 2025 will have 85 new homes on once-vacant north Omaha property and another 15 or more renovated nearby.
What is moving the organization forward, according to Amanda, is Habitat Omaha’s mission to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter; and the staff and volunteers. “It’s not me. The only thing I have is the gift of seeing other people’s gifts and allowing them to happen every single day.”
And like most nonprofits, Habitat Omaha is evolving to keep its mission relevant to community needs. Twenty to 30 years ago, it was about the individual house and family. Those homeowners are now making their last mortgage payments. “How cool is that,” Amanda adds, “owning your own house free and clear and having the equity to pass on to the next generation.”
Now, the focus has grown to include neighborhoods to build new homes, fix up existing homes and build up neighborhoods to increase the value and quality of life for its residents.
“But is that enough?” Amanda asks. “I would say no. It is not enough until everyone has stability in their living situation.” That includes more effort to create equity and overcome disparities in accessibility to homeownership. Some of these inequities date back a hundred years and take time and effort to overcome.
“We need to keep working until anyone that wants to buy a house and is willing to put things in place to make it happen a reality,” she said. “We want to be there for more families. Not just the 50 to 100 houses we can build every year, but beyond that.”
“Our focus is on the full spectrum of homeownership,” Amanda said. Things like providing financing to people who want to buy a home on the open market, home preservation to help make needed repairs and access to home equity financing to complete them, and to help ensure the home and property transfer to the next generation. “A home is often someone’s biggest asset, and when it doesn’t transfer properly, it is like starting at zero for the family.”
Advocacy is another focus. “We are absolutely an organization that gets things done. We have to. There are not enough affordable houses available in Omaha.” Recent studies indicate a deficit of 80,000 affordable housing units in Omaha alone. If unaddressed, that number will grow exponentially.
Habitat will continue to build houses and help families get mortgage ready, but advocacy has added importance. “Advocacy works to change the systems creating barriers to homeownership,” Amanda said. Advocacy becomes part of a more prominent role in encouraging staff, volunteers, homeowners, neighbors and elected officials to be advocates for positive change.
“It’s working,” Amanda adds. “The true Habitat gift is the ‘humanity.’ It is ‘The People.’”
I feel so grateful for 25 years of working for such a wonderful organization and making a difference in providing a basic human need.”