Habitat Omaha’s First Washington County Chief Builder of Connections

April 28, 2024

Habitat Omaha’s First Washington County Chief Builder of Connections

As Dee Sylvis looks back on her 15-year volunteer career with Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, including building the first Habitat home in Blair, her job description sounds like Habitat Omaha’s “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.”

However, if you look at Dee’s body of work, she is the Chief Builder of Connections in Blair, helping spearhead Habitat Omaha’s effort to build and repair more homes in Washington County. After building one home about every two years since 2007, Habitat Omaha is now preparing to build 10 new homes over the next five years and complete 20 critical home repairs over the same period.

As a volunteer, Dee was at the forefront of the much-needed affordable housing effort in Washington County.

Her actual full-time paying job was as an Administrative Assistant to the Plant Manager and a supervisor to administrative assistants at the Cargill location in Blair. That changed in 2004 when a Cargill engineer transferred from Ohio and wanted to do a company team-building activity with Habitat for Humanity as the beneficiary.

Habitat Omaha did not have any activities in Blair or Washington County then, so Dee arranged a Cargill corporate team build on North 16th Street in Omaha. After the home was complete, there was interest in continuing with the program, but Dee said the consensus was to build homes in the Blair community.

That’s when Dee’s second job kicked into high gear. The Blair community agreed to build one home every two years. Dee’s “second” job was to find available lots or properties, fundraise, build the homes, find families to live in the homes, and arrange for contractors, volunteers, and others to donate labor, equipment, and services. “How many hours she contributed for Habitat projects? I can’t figure it out,” she said.

In addition to arranging for moving dirt and getting porta potties and dumpsters donated, Dee also worked on the job site. “I wore bib overalls, a pink leather tool belt, and a hard hat,” she added.

But the most rewarding part, Dee said, is helping solve the need for affordable housing in the area. “I know there is a need, but people are proud and don’t ask for help, or they think we gave them a home for free. Sometimes, I struggled to find families.”

Gradually, Dee said, a team effort began sharing accurate information to get the right people to apply. That team included Cargill, the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, the Washington County Bank (wcb), local contractors like PSC, Abe’s Trash Service, Habitat Omaha and many others.

And even though she is retired and living in South Dakota now, Dee still has those connections. “And I can say that from the very first house that I built, I became best friends with the homeowners, and I’m still in contact with them.”

And Dee looks forward to Habitat Omaha’s expanded efforts in the area. “I’m going to feel great about Habitat’s wonderful program,” she said. “I’ll be down there helping.”

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