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Habitat director puts her heart into her work

January 23, 2000|By JULIE E. GREENE

Sherry Brown says she has a "nonprofit heart."

She's even been called Ms. Nonprofit and was recently given a resolution by the Maryland Senate recognizing her work.

The Boonsboro native has had her hand in several nonprofit organizations since 1989 and became the first paid executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Washington County last October.

Brown said her desire to help nonprofit organizations was born almost 20 years ago, when she was a 28-year-old single mother trying to make ends meet.

"I had been helped by a United Way agency and wanted to give back," said Brown, 47, of Hagerstown.

United Way of Washington County affiliate Hagerstown Day Nursery provided discounted child care for her son, bringing affordable day care within reach, Brown said.

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Later, when she could afford to, Brown made a donation to United Way.

Brown also was spurred by a need to help others help themselves rather than help a corporation meet a bottom line.

"There was something missing. I need that warm, fuzzy stuff. I'm a people person," said Brown, sitting in the basement office space at 20 S. Prospect St. donated to Habitat by the Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown.

"I guess to make someone else's life better satisfies the soul for me," Brown said.

After volunteering at CASA - Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused - for two years, Brown took a job as agency relations coordinator for the local United Way in 1991.

Brown has worked for several local nonprofit outfits in the past decade - United Way, Hagerstown Goodwill Industries, the Easter Seal Society and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Washington County.

While she wasn't seeking to move from job to job, Brown said she took advantage of offers that came her way to move up as long as she believed in the group's mission.

Despite a $90,000 grant that partially funds Brown's annual $36,000 salary at Habitat for Humanity for three years, Brown said she expects to stay on board beyond the grant's current expiration.

"I'm a visionary. I've got a picture of where I want Habitat to be," she said.

"My vision would be to eliminate substandard housing in Washington County, and there is quite a bit of substandard housing in Washington County," Brown said.

Habitat announced last year its ambitious goal of building 20 homes in five years. Habitat has built eight houses in the county since becoming affiliated in 1994. Three houses are expected to be complete by the end of the year as part of an eventual four-home cluster near the intersection of Wellington Avenue and Harwood Road.

To qualify for housing, residents must donate 500 hours of "sweat equity" or volunteer time, meet income requirements and need decent housing.

Brown's vision also includes a strong financial base, collaborative programming with other agencies, and a store that sells used materials for home renovation.

A Habitat chapter in Austin, Texas, initiated the idea for a Re-Store, where people can buy donated housing materials such as electrical outlets or windows in good condition and at lower cost than new, Brown said.

The store would benefit anyone needing housing materials, as well as Habitat, with the proceeds funneled back into the home-building program, she said.

Brown said she hopes to have such a store open in three to five years. She also wants to work with other agencies to provide services to the low-income families for which Habitat builds homes.

"We're about building families, not just building homes," Brown said.

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