Habitat for Humanity leader seeks to double number of builds

September 22, 2019  Eagle Tribune

LAWRENCE — Although she started her job last November, Meegan O’Neil, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity, still hasn’t had time to decorate her office.

A desk, a laptop, a printer, and four blank, white walls are all she needs to run the $3 million organization, which has a 14-person paid staff, a 15-member board of directors, and countless volunteers working together to build an average of four affordable homes a year.

And there’s a good chance her office will remain sparsely decorated. O’Neil has big plans for the organization, which was started in 1985 and has been located in a converted mill at 60 Island St. for the past 10 years.

“Habitat has been on a great path,” O’Neil said, noting it is on track to complete its 100th home this year. “I’m looking at accelerating that path. Affordable housing is critical. The awareness of the need has grown. My role is to mobilize those forces and grow capacity.”

In other words, she said, “I’d like to produce more units. We’ve been doing four units a year. I’d like to see us produce eight to 10.”

O’Neil, 47, had a successful, 25-year career with the North Shore YMCA, including working as executive director of both the Beverly and Marblehead branches, as well as most recently serving as chief marketing and strategy officer for the North Shore region.

The Ipswich mother of four boys said her experience as executive director in Beverly and Marblehead has served her well so far in Lawrence.

“I’m focused on meeting the needs in the community, working with the board and staff to fulfill our mission,” she said. “I spent 25 years in YMCAs. I love nonprofit work. I was just ready to do something else.”

She saw an ad online and even though she already had another job offer in hand, she took part in what she called a “very thorough process.”

In the end, the board of directors picked her — and she picked Habitat for Humanity.

“We are happy to have found a candidate who connects so well with Habitat’s mission, knows our network of Merrimack Valley communities, and shares our culture of accomplishment and creativity,” said Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity Board President Richard Sumberg.

The feeling is mutual.

“I like the board,” O’Neil said. “They are committed, talented, and dedicated. They are a great resource, a group of talented professionals who provide me with guidance and perspective.”

Moreover, she said, they are on a positive mission that has been needed for a long time. 

“Twenty years ago, the United Way released a study saying the number-one need in the area was affordable housing,” she said. “That need has grown exponentially. Habitat is an amazing organization because of its partnerships with volunteers, donors and families.”

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army of volunteers to build an affordable home.

The lion’s share of the agency’s annual budget goes to construction costs, including materials and site work. The paid staff, along with her approximately $100,000 salary, also take up a portion of that budget.

But the backbone of the organization is the volunteers.

“What’s inspired me the most is the consistent volunteers who are site supervisors,” she said. “It’s a core of volunteers who come every week, every Wednesday and Thursday, to the construction site.”

She said most of them are retired professionals who have learned how to build homes. One is a biologist. Another is an engineer. A third was in the publishing industry.

What they all share in common is they “like hard work that’s meaningful.”

She said the site supervisors are critical in helping to train new volunteers 

Meanwhile, professional electricians and plumbers donate their time to the projects to insure that the homes are built to local and state building codes. 

Architectural and legal work is all done pro bono, she added.

One of the drawbacks of an organization that relies on volunteers is that the pace of a project may not be as quick as that of a commercial outfit.

“We are not the fastest builders in the area,” she said, smiling.

But, like the fabled tortoise, slow and steady is winning the race.

Currently, MV Habitat is building two duplexes in Andover in a joint venture with the Andover Community Trust, an affordable housing organization that is building two duplexes on the same Lupine Road lot.

The other ongoing project is in Salisbury, where the organization is building three duplexes.

Recently completed projects include one duplex on Lawrence’s Franklin Street and another on Mason Street with dedication ceremonies held last month.