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A Firm Foundation
Neil Hetherington, CEO of Toronto's Habitat for Humanity, is building his career on faith.

Neil Hetherington, 30, will never forget his first house. Not the one he shares with his wife, Laura, but the house he helped build as CEO of Toronto's Habitat for Humanity, an organization that provides affordable shelter for low-income families.

A Firm Foundation
Neil Hetherington
Photo by Timothy Cheng

"It was December 7, 2000, the first snowfall of the year," Neil recalls. "I entered a basement apartment on Dupont Avenue in Toronto to deliver a letter to a family approving them for a Habitat home. I wasn't prepared for what I found.

"A family of five was crowded into a 200 square foot apartment. They cooked their meals on a hot plate and slept in one bed. There were no windows—no way to get out if there was a fire. One of the young children required a wheelchair, but there wasn't enough room in the apartment—they had to tie it up on the street every night with a bike lock.

"I walked by that home for years as a student, but had no idea of the hidden poverty in Toronto." Now he's doing something about it, working to help those living below the poverty line to become homeowners.

On July 12, 2004, Neil addressed 150 volunteers at a construction site in Scarborough, ON, where 40 new homes were being erected. Dubbed the Breakthrough Build, it was the biggest development in Canadian Habitat history. The land, valued at $2.3 million, was given to Habitat by the federal government.

Sporting a cowboy hardhat, Neil welcomed a contingent of volunteers from Dallas, Texas. Rev. Bill Norman of Blythwood Baptist Church led the team in a devotional and Bible reading before Neil rallied the group with a Habitat cheer: "Oyeh!" which means "We can do it!" in Swahili.

Four years earlier, Neil worked for Tridel, Toronto's top condominium developer. But he was restless and unsatisfied. "Professionally, I was doing very well. I loved the company and I was working with an incredible group of people. Personally, however, I began to notice changes in my priorities and in the way I treated people. I didn't always respect people the way I should. Tennis lessons began to take priority over Bible study."

After a particularly bad day at work, Neil decided, on a whim, to apply for an executive director position at Habitat for Humanity. "I had volunteered with Habitat in the past and knew it was a good organization, but they were not really doing anything in Toronto. I submitted a horrible resume—it was two years old and full of spelling mistakes—but after a round of interviews they offered me the position."

At the time, Neil wasn't sure he wanted the job. It was one third the pay with an organization that nobody knew, but his first visit to that family in the tiny apartment on Dupont Avenue confirmed it: God wanted him to do something different with his life.

"Working with Habitat is not a profession, it's a calling," notes Neil. "It has allowed me to see people in a different light. We built that first wheelchair accessible home in nine days. When we dedicated it on June 23, 2001, there was not a single dry eye at the gathering. We had to staple Kleenex into everybody's program."

Since then, the work has grown exponentially. When Neil first started working for Habitat, they were building half a house per year. In his first year, Neil set a new target of nine houses.

"There was scepticism about whether or not we had the organizational capacity to do it," he admits. A Tuesday night Bible study inspired Neil and his team to be bold and trust God to do amazing things.

"Like The Salvation Army, we are unashamedly a Christian organization. Habitat has stayed faithful and true to the roots of the organization. We build with everybody and for everybody in need—but we don't lose sight of who we are."

Neil sought support from his home church, Yorkminster Park Baptist. "I asked our mission board for $100,000 to build a home in Toronto. They laughed at first, but I told them that getting involved would strengthen the congregation and show everyone what churches ought to be about. In the end, we raised $135,000 and built two homes instead of one."

A Firm Foundation
"We have gone from building half a house a year to nine, 17 and now 51 homes."
Photo by Timothy Cheng

Now, eight other churches in the area also provide volunteer workers, meals and, most important, prayer.

"The churches are the base of our support," Neil asserts. "We have gone from building half a house a year to nine, 17 and now 51 homes. We are discovering that with God, all things are possible."

Founded by Millard and Linda Fuller in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has constructed almost 200,000 homes in 100 countries worldwide. One home is built every 26 minutes. "Everybody can relate to the need for shelter for families—it's universal," says Neil. "There is a real desire for people to ive of their time and see the tangible results of their efforts."

Habitat operates two ReStores in Toronto that recycle furnishings from homes that are being renovated or demolished. The proceeds cover all of Habitat's administrative costs.

Habitat homes are not given away. Eligible families are required to contribute 500 volunteer hours—referred to as "sweat equity." They then agree to repay a no-interest mortgage. That money goes into a revolving trust fund to build more Habitat homes.

In spite of the company's good track record, Neil still encounters resistance—the difficulty of securing affordable land, the challenge of fundraising, the not-in-my-backyard sentiments, civic workers strikes. But he rarely gets discouraged.

"It's a lot of work, but this position has brought me joy. It's a God-given position. I bounce out of bed every day, excited to come to work."

Neil has helped build homes in ten different countries in Africa and Eastern Europe, and has net with Jimmy Carter, Habitat's most famous volunteer. But the best part of the job, he notes, is standing on the front doorstep handing the keys to the new homeowners.

Neil knows that giving back to his community brings its own rewards. "Now, if I have a bad day at work," says Neil, "I just drive by a Habitat home and everything is fine. You see the lights on and you know the family's doing all right."

Geoff Moulton, editor of Faith & Friends magazine, invites anyone who can swing a hammer to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity at

Originally published in Faith and Friends, September 2004.




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