Home’s where heart is for Habitat Monmouth volunteers

Nancy Doran has been volunteering at Habitat for Humanity for almost two decades, and she has no intention of stopping anytime soon.Nancy Doran has been volunteering at Habitat for Humanity for almost two decades, and she has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

“My husband retired and he was good with his hands, so we signed up and here we are,” Doran recalled on an early Saturday morning in Long Branch. “I have met the best people in the world because they want to be here. It’s great to see that we make a difference.”

Doran, a former Habitat for Humanity in Monmouth County board president, is one of approximately 100 local volunteers who signed on for National Women Build Week, a nationwide partnership between nonprofit housing organization Habitat for Humanity and Lowe’s home improvement store that brings women together for a week of building and goodwill.

More than 18,000 women nationwide have taken part in the initiative since its inception in 2008.

“It’s just a real high-impact program,” HFHMC Executive Director Diane Kinnane told NJBIZ. “There’s a lot of momentum. It’s about empowering women, advocating for affordable housing and learning construction skills. We want to engage women of all skill levels to join their friends, families and neighbors to build up their communities and volunteer.”

Since the launch of its national partnership with HFH in 2003, Lowe’s has committed more than $63 million and assisted nearly 6,500 families.

“Lowe’s is proud to sponsor National Women Build Week to educate, inspire and empower women to volunteer alongside other women in their community to address the critical issue of affordable housing,” Lowe’s Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility Colleen Penhall told NJBIZ. “We know women working together are an unstoppable force for creating meaningful change in our communities. Together with Habitat, our Lowe’s Heroes volunteers and women nationwide, National Women Build Week will provide valuable support to advance accessible housing in the communities where we all live and work.”

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider lauded the volunteers at the launch ceremony for the build initiative.

“The impact that Habitat has made in this city is wonderful,” he said.

HFHMC Board President Kate Nelson joined the affiliate as a volunteer coordinator in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“It was so rewarding,” Nelson said. “I saw so much tragedy and hope in the aftermath. We believe that everyone in the world should have a decent place to live and that’s what inspires us.”

Since then, HFHMC has built 12 houses and renovated 125.

HFHMC board secretary Lia Papamarkou is involved in both local and international Habitat initiatives.

“I love Habitat for what we do locally and internationally,” she said. “I think it’s important to let women know they are capable. It breaks down barriers and some of that stigma. People get on the site and meet the homeowners and that ties it all together. It’s that overall feeling and we are giving that opportunity to everyone. It allows women to feel more connected to that type of work.”

For longtime volunteer Barb Anderson, it all comes down to a return to normalcy.

“I just fell in love with the whole idea of getting people back in their houses,” Anderson said. “We go from having a house built to having people in it. It’s such a great feeling to get people back in their house and back on their feet again. The people are wonderful and you’re giving back and getting so much in return.”

Gopal helping small businesses cut through red tape

When Ritesh Shah tried to open his pharmacy in Red Bank, construction was stalled several times by layers of red tape in the form of repetitive inspections he felt were unnecessary and time consuming.

“I have [an] elevator in the building [and] for you to get the elevator inspected, you have to have the town inspector come and check your elevator. [The state] will come check, too,” Shah said. “My question is, what do they both need to check? It makes no sense.

“I also had an issue with the sidewalk. When [the] mayor and council came for the grand opening, we had an issue with the handicap ramp. We did everything according to the compliance of the town engineers, but then they came back and said it was noncompliant [with] the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. Why hadn’t they said before?”

Responding to such concerns, state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-11th District, recently launched ReportRedTape.com, an online intake system for small business owners to air their grievances and get advice for how to cut through some of the red tape they encounter.

“When we get a complaint, our staff talks to the business owner,” Gopal said. “Sometimes these laws are very old that hurt business owners: where they can put signs, when they can open. If the business is having trouble with the town, we’ll call the town. If they’re having an issue with the state, we’ll call the state. Something that happens a lot is a new business will start constriction and the inspector will come by in 30 days and find a few minor problems, and instead of coming back a day or a week later, they’ll come back in another 30 days.”

“I have [an] elevator in the building [and] for you to get the elevator inspected, you have to have the town inspector come and check your elevator. [The state] will come check, too. My question is, what do they both need to check? It makes no sense.”

Ritesh Shah, pharmacy owner

Gopal came up with the idea based on his experience on the board of the Monmouth County Chamber of Commerce and as president of Hazlet Business Owners Association, a local trade association representing approximately 100 businesses in Hazlet Township. Since launching May 1, the website has fielded about a dozen complaints from business owners like Shah.

“I’m a community pharmacist – I love community,” Gopal said. “The lady at the store down the street knows exactly how I take my bagel and coffee. When mom-and-pop stores come into town to revitalize where business is needed, we’re not getting encouraged [by the regulations]. And oh, the fees! The agencies say you have to do this, this, this. Why didn’t you tell me this before? It’s just such a process,” said Shah.

Gopal hopes to streamline that process for small business owners.

“This website is an outlet for business owners to open up about issues that they’re facing so that we can try to get them some solutions. We want to give them a voice, so they feel like their frustrations will be heard,” said Gopal.

Gopal also launched a series of small business roundtables for business owners to come ask questions of prominent politicians and industry personnel. At the first roundtable May 4, about 75 showed up to talk with Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District.

The next roundtable discussion will be May 30 at Freehold Borough Hall, with NJBIA President Michele Siekerka lined up as guest speaker.