Don Rollens is a man of many talents.
A Cleveland resident since 1982, Rollens worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a supervisor at Cherokee National Forest until 1989. Looking for something to keep himself busy and active after retirement, he became involved in some of the initial meetings that would eventually birth Habitat for Humanity of Cleveland Inc.
Habitat for Humanity of Cleveland is a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating poverty and homelessness. Since the organization’s establishment in 1991, Habitat has worked in partnership with low-income working families, churches, sponsors, and communities to build decent, affordable housing.
Over the years, Rollens has served on Habitat’s board of directors and even served as board president for a year. He has had the privilege to see lots of changes and growth over the years.
When he started, the affiliate had offices in Broad Street United Methodist Church and then started the ReStore in a small concrete building downtown. Rollens saw the ReStore move to the old Charleston Hosiery factory building for awhile, and then finally both the offices and the ReStore moved to the current, spacious location in the historic Cinema Twin movie theater building on Grove Avenue.
Rollens has thoroughly enjoyed watching the progress, which he attributes to the Cleveland community.
“Without community support and volunteers, the program would not be successful,” he said. “And good leadership, too, that’s helped a lot.”
Families in need of decent shelter apply to local Habitat affiliates. Throughout the process, homeowners must take certain classes and also invest hundreds of hours of their own labor, called “sweat equity,” into building Habitat houses and working in various support areas. After receiving their home, each family repays on a low-cost, zero-interest loan. The homeowners' monthly mortgage payments are based on income and are used to build still more Habitat houses.
In addition to his work on the board, Rollens has been a vital member of the Habitat volunteer construction team since day one. Twenty-three years and 113 houses later, he has swung a hammer during the construction of every single Habitat home.
“Don has worked on every house since we started building back in 1991,” Habitat Executive Director Matt Carlson said. “On the job site, Don has been a great leader for our construction guys, for our full-time guys and for all the volunteers that come on-site. He’s done a great job as a leader in the community.”
Rollens explained his motivation with a smile, stating, “It’s been sort of a labor of love, you might say. I just enjoy working with the other volunteers, working with my hands and seeing [our] accomplishments.”
Alongside the other construction volunteers, Rollens is out on the job site two full days every week, in all kinds of weather. The construction group is very tight-knit, a “camaraderie,” he said of the group of wonderful, hard-working people.
Volunteers build just about everything on the homes, from the foundation up. While they do have to subcontract plumbing, electrical work and roofing, volunteers do framing, siding, flooring, painting and all the finish work that comes afterward.
“You actually see something happen,” Rollens said. “That’s what’s so satisfying, is to see the end result of your labors.”
And the benefits of volunteering affect him as well as the families. It has kept him active, busy and learning new skills.
“When I came and started to work, I wasn’t much of a carpenter,” Rollens reflected with a chuckle. “But you learn! And it’s not just skills you can use on-site, but you can use on your own home.”
Rollens emphasized the need for more volunteers, encouraging people to come find out more if they’re looking for something worthwhile and fulfilling. And he, of all people, should know. After 23 years and 113 houses, he is just as passionate about the mission as he was at the beginning.
“We’re filling a need that, if we weren’t here, would not be filled,” Rollens said. “People would still be living in less-than-decent homes and not safe [homes].”
“Don has been very proactive in many different areas of the affiliate, and has basically helped out wherever we’ve had needs,” Carlson said. “He has sort of laid the standard for what a good volunteer is.”
And Rollens has no intention of quitting anytime soon.
“It’s been quite an experience, and I want to continue working as long as I can,” he offered.
Those interested in volunteering for Habitat for Humanity should call the nonprofit’s Volunteer Services Department at 473-4610, ext. 202, or sign up online at www.habitatofcleveland.org/volunteer.