MOUNT PLEASANT – Habitat for Humanity is a ministry that works because of people like Greg Thomas.
Thomas is the construction supervisor for the East Cooper chapter of Habitat, and people of all ages volunteer to build houses with him. Those houses are sold at affordable rates to low-income families.
“People come from out of town to volunteer because of him. Everyone loves Mr. Thomas,” said Colleen Longfellow of the East Cooper office.
Many of those who come to volunteer are young people. Thomas estimates that 60 percent of the construction work on Habitat for Humanity homes is done by youth. They come from youth groups at Stella Maris, Christ Our King and St. Benedict parishes, from the student body at Bishop England High School and from AmeriCorps; they are college students who come to work for the poor as an alternative to the usual spring break frivolities.
“I love working with younger people. They keep me young and healthful,” Thomas said.
He also works with retired people and with all ages in-between. It was his ability to be productive in the midst of such diversity in the volunteer ranks that first endeared Thomas to the executive director of Sea Islands Habitat for Humanity, where Thomas cut his teeth as a volunteer in South Carolina.
Following four years of volunteer work in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Thomas volunteered under Charles B. “Chuck” Swenson for two years — and still donates time to Swenson’s John’s Island affiliate.
“Greg has been a real blessing to our ministry,” Swenson said. “He’s not only a good quality craftsman, he just fits the kind of profile we need: kind and caring.”
Swenson thought so much of Thomas’ work ethic and generous spirit, in fact, that he recommended him for the East Cooper Habitat for Humanity position he now holds.
Thomas is joined in his volunteer work by his wife of 32 years, Susan. Swenson called the couple “a winning team.”
“They are great Christian examples of service to the community,” director Swenson said.
Susan and Greg Thomas had successful careers before deciding in 1998, when their younger child graduated from college, that they would commit to a second career helping others.
“We wanted to give thanks for all we’ve accumulated. This volunteer work was the answer; it was the opportunity to live out what we wanted to do. I consider it an extension of my Catholic faith,” Thomas said.
The Thomases are parishioners at Holy Sprit Catholic Church on John’s Island, near their Seabrook Island home.
The beneficiaries of their work with Habitat come from decidedly different circumstances and neighborhoods. And that dichotomy presents the opportunity for corporal works of mercy and for improving the chances for future generations to better their lot in life.
“These kids will at least have the chance to grow up in a good home, in a nice neighborhood, with a bedroom of their own and a roof that doesn’t leak,” Thomas said.
Habitat for Humanity is an international ecumenical Christian agency that builds “simple, decent houses” with volunteer labor and donated materials and sells them to the working poor, who help with construction.
The homes are sold at no profit and financed by zero-interest loans. As the mortgages are paid off by the “partner families,” the money paid is used to build ever more homes.
Requiring the partner family members to help build their homes is an integral part of the Habitat concept, keeping at bay the stigma of a giveaway program. The idea, according to Habitat officials, is that the beneficiary builds equity in the home with his or her work.
One of those beneficiaries is Rebecca A. Gasque, who moved into her new home in Mt. Pleasant with her family in September. She said that qualifying for the home was exciting, although the prospect of actually helping to build it was “scary.” Greg Thomas made it all work for her.
“Say we messed up something. He’d say, ‘No problem,’ then show us how to do it. He made us feel like we could build a house, and we really can’t,” Gasque said. “Greg Thomas is a God-sent man, a great man.”
Greg Thomas holds a bachelor’s degree from Slippery Rock College in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh; he taught religious education for 12 years and coached children at various levels.
When he was desk-bound as a business administrator, he ran marathons. Now he gets all the exercise he needs clambering on roofs and hammering nails.
He enjoys his work now, he said, not only for the health benefits and because it benefits people who need a break, but also because of the people who volunteer alongside him.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to work with volunteers who want to be here. We get the cream of the crop as far as friendly people go, because people who are not friendly don’t volunteer,” Thomas said.
Why does he spend so much time and energy on Habitat, when he could be golfing every day and taking life easy?
In the words of Greg Thomas: “It’s all a matter of having the right Christian attitude.” Rebecca Gasque would agree.