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Sweat equity builds skills and homes through Habitat for Humanity in Okanogan

The support of extended families in the Tonasket and Oroville area limits the number of applications for Habitat for Humanity houses.

“Most hesitate to apply—even if they earn too little to pay rent or own a house.  They think someone else is more needy,” said Ivetta Howell, building coordinator for the Okanogan affiliate of Habitat. 

Ivetta Howell

“There may be 10 living in a grandparent’s home, but they may not think they meet the criterion of need,” she said in a recent interview during a workday in Oroville at the site of the affiliate’s fourth house in eight years. 

Ivetta said it’s as hard to raise funds as it is to find families.

People in churches, community organizations and businesses in Tonasket and Oroville never know how they will raise the $40,000 needed to build a Habitat house, but they have built two houses in Tonasket and are completing their second in Oroville.

Area orchards have declined and have diversified from apples to pears, cherries, apricots, nectarines and peaches.  There were once four apple warehouses in each community.  Now there is one in each.  The area is economically depressed, but the affiliate has raised the funds, she said.

Ivetta, a member of the Tonasket Community United Church of Christ, said area churches contribute to fund raising. In addition to her church, other area churches on the Church Relations Committee or assisting are the Seventh Day Adventist, Assembly of God, Free Methodist, and Holy Rosary Catholic in Tonasket; Immaculate Conception Catholic, the Free Methodist, the United Methodist, Country Full Gospel and the Episcopal Church in Oroville; the Church of the Brethren in Ellisforde; Emmanuel Lutheran in Havillah and the Community Church in Loomis.
Each year they hold a fund-raising house tour.  Last year the Havillah church arranged for Thrivent Financial to match up to $800 in donations for the salad lunch and house tour.  They raised $1,000 from the 70 participants, so had a total of $1,800.

Women in the churches make and raffled quilts.  Men made and raffled a storage shed.

On Sept. 19, the churches held an interdenominational service, featuring a guest speaker and music from area churches.

We build on faith, never knowing when we will receive funds from memorials, donations and fund raisers,” Ivetta said.

Income also comes from homeowners paying their mortgages. They draw from the churches to recruit volunteers.

Vern Ritter heard an announcement at church that Habitat needed volunteers, so he called and has come each work day.  About eight people are regular volunteers, working Thursdays and Saturdays. 

Youth groups and others in churches join in to help when it’s time to paint.

Interested people have found many ways to share their skills.  For example, Ruth and Bill La France are among those who bring refreshments.

Last year, a reading teacher motivated students to read, saying the elementary principal would donate a certain number of minutes of work on the Habitat house for every book they read.  He worked 200 hours in the summer.  Other teachers joined him.

Midway Tile Supply is the source of building materials, giving a price break.  A local contractor, Bob Thompson, drew the plans, excavated and poured cement.  A plumber, an electrician and a window installer donate their time.

AmeriCorps volunteers have also helped with Habitat houses. 

When the local AmeriCorps director left, the homeowner of the third house became the new AmeriCorps director.    Another homeowner, who had been a janitor, gained confidence and skills through building his house.  Now he is head of the maintenance department at the hospital in Tonasket.  A local contractor hired the other previous homeowner.

Most just need a hand to get going, and their lives improve,” Ivetta said.

Danny pounds nails.

The owners of the current home in Oroville, Danny, 46, and his wife, Georgia, grew up in the area. They were living in their mothers’ homes.  They have two older children in the military and a fourth and a sixth grader at home.  He is on disability because of heart problems.  She is working two jobs. 

He is putting in the 500 hours of “sweat equity,” under the careful eye of volunteer builders, Vern, Pete Liesmaki, Gene Howell and others.  They make sure he doesn’t overdo as he pounds nails.

“I lost my dad two years ago, but I’ve gained five dads working on the house,” Danny said.

He said he is learning skills he can apply to a future trade, perhaps cabinet building.  He had helped his mother with remodeling her place, but never had built a house from the ground up.

“I hope to find ways to give back to Habitat,” he said.

Ivetta, who moved to Tonasket in 1965, has been involved with Habitat since it started. 

“By building Habitat houses I have met people I would never have had contact with,” she said.  “It feels so good just to help someone and to know we are making a difference in someone’s life.”

For information, call 486-2458. or email

By Mary Stamp, Copyright © October 2004 - The Fig Tree