Habitat for Humanity sets Ashley Gibson up for success

Ten years ago, Ashley Gibson was accepted into the Northwoods Habitat for Humanity program, becoming the 39th family to receive a Habitat home in Bemidji.

Ashley Gibson and her two children Malik, then 5, and Maliah, then 3, have a picnic on what would soon be their new home along Mississippi Avenue, on May 17, 2012, thanks to the Northwoods Habitat for Humanity "Faith Build." Pioneer file photo

BEMIDJI -- Ten years ago, Ashley Gibson was accepted into the Northwoods Habitat for Humanity program, becoming the 39th family to receive a Habitat home in Bemidji.

During the summer of 2012, she worked with volunteers to build her home on Mississippi Avenue and now, nearly a decade later, she has outgrown her Habitat house and is in the process of buying a new one.

“She's just been phenomenal as a Habitat homeowner,” said Geri Hickerson, executive director of Northwoods Habitat for Humanity. “She was at the building site almost every day if she wasn't working. She engaged with our volunteers, she engaged with board members. Was never late on a payment. Just one of those partnerships that was really great. To see her do all the things that she's done, it's really refreshing to see how our families succeed if they're given an opportunity.”

Building a home

In 2012, Gibson felt stuck.

“I was a single mom at the time,” she said. “I finished school two years earlier, so I had more of a career and a stable income. We were renting an apartment. It was way out of my means. We lived on the second floor, there was nowhere for my kids to run and play. It was to the point where I was hanging my laundry in the kitchen to save money.”


She heard about Habitat for Humanity on the radio and on a whim, decided to apply.

“It went so quickly,” Gibson said. “From the time that I applied, to the time that we actually moved into the home was 11 months. We used to drive by (the lot and I’d say), ‘You guys, look at this lot. One day, this is going to be our house,’ and (my kids would say), ‘Oh mom, you're crazy.’”

As part of the build, Habitat for Humanity combined more than 150 volunteers from 10 different churches.

Gibson became emotional as she recalled the building process. She remembered sharing a picnic with her children in the place that would eventually become their kitchen. She chose the lot because it had plenty of trees for her son to climb.

“It was super, super emotional for me,” she said. “The biggest thing was, it was my golden birthday, my 29th birthday, and I got to put the roof on. I actually got to sit on the roof and help put shingles on. Overall it was an awesome experience for my family being a part of the process of building our home. Being able to select the fixtures or the color of the siding, everything. You get to choose.”

Now that Gibson is going through the process of buying a home outside of the Habitat program, it puts into perspective how much the program streamlined the home buying process for her.

“It was such a wonderful process. I'm in the process of buying a house right now. We're finally getting ready to close on it,” she said. “I’m so thankful that I had Habitat for my first experience because they made it so easy.”

Gibson's story is a classic example of a "hand up, not a handout," which is a goal for Habitat for Humanity, according to Hickerson. Due to the more affordable housing payments, Gibson could afford to go back to school and change careers, which eventually led to a higher-income job and a new home.


“Because the payments were so affordable, it allowed me to go back to school. It just opened up different opportunities for me,” she said. “My kids were safer, they had a backyard that they could go and play in. I would totally encourage somebody to do it, don't get overwhelmed, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Right after going to school, I got a better position,” Gibson added. “My pay increased and it opened up so many more doors.”

According to Hickerson, it was Gibson’s determination and strong sense of community that made her a great candidate for the program.

“Ultimately leading to the steps she has taken in the last few months to sell her Habitat home and purchase a new home for her growing family,” Hickerson said.

Gibson said having a baby, getting engaged and now having another baby on the way led them to search for a larger home.

“It just wasn't enough house for what our family has become,” she said.

The gift of a blanket

Mitch Hill, a realtor from Grimes Realty, has been working with Gibson in selling her home and finding a new one. Inspired by Gibson’s strong ties to her Anishinaabe culture, Hill commissioned a blanket from Bemidji Woolen Mills to represent the beginning and end of her time in her Habitat home.

“I’ve known Ashley since high school. I was raised by a single mother myself and know its struggles,” said Hill. “I wanted to do something extra special for her to celebrate her accomplishments of going to school for cosmetology, then back to school as a dental assistant while raising children.


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Inspired by Ashley Gibson’s strong ties to her Anishinaabe culture, Mitch Hill, a realtor from Grimes Realty, recently commissioned a blanket from Bemidji Woolen Mills to represent the beginning and end of her time in her Habitat home. Submitted photo.

“I wanted the community to know that Ashley was successful because of the support she got from Northwoods Habitat for Humanity. Because of her affordable mortgage, she was able to earn equity and had the financial ability to purchase a home when her family outgrew her Habitat home.”

The blanket was presented to Gibson last month at the Bemidji Woolen Mills by Hill, Hickerson, Bemidji City Councilor Audrey Thayer and Bemidji Woolen Mills Owner Bill Batchelder.

“The blanket was a great representation of who I am as an individual,” Gibson said. “Mitch picked it out for me and it was amazing how spot on it was, it represented so much for me. It was a special gift and a blessing to get that blanket.”

Habitat for Humanity’s impact

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that helps families build and improve places to call home. Since 1990, Northwoods Habitat has sold 57 homes to families and has helped 78 low-income homeowners repair their homes.

Homeowners are selected by a committee and must complete 300 "sweat equity" hours, 125 of which must be completed before groundbreaking begins. Hours are earned building other Habitat homes and are usually finished by building the homeowner's own home, Hickerson said.

According to Hickerson, “It is important for the community to know that Habitat for Humanity is a hand-up out of poverty for the families we serve. It takes a community to help build affordable homes to lift our residents up out of poverty. Ashley’s story is one of hope, partnership and success. With zero-interest loans, families are able to build equity from the very first payment. Our families are stable, strong and self-reliant, and because of many partnerships, our community is stronger.”


During the pandemic, Habitat has faced increased hurdles and the costs of construction have risen dramatically.

“We're looking at a 30% increase. What would have cost us last year to do a $100,000 house, we're looking at about $135,000,” she said.

Despite this, the organization didn’t slow down.

“We built a house last year. This year we're building two,” Hickerson said. “Even though the cost is up, the need is still there.”

In a typical year, the program builds one house. Hickerson said, going forward, they hope to complete two a year. To do this, the program needs to get more families enrolled.

“We are desperately seeking families to get into the system so that they can get their hours worked out and be ready to build next summer. We need families to apply. I think they just don't quite understand what that means in the big scheme of things.

“Over COVID, people's income was all over the place. It's hard to even think about trying to apply for a mortgage when you have no idea what your income is going to look like, and it was really a scary time for people to be thinking about buying, we get that.”

Gibson said she wholeheartedly recommends the program to other people in her situation.


“It's a wonderful program for people who are in a stage of life where they maybe can't afford to get a conventional loan. I would encourage people to look into it, talk to other families that are already in the program. For me and my children, Habitat was a blessing,” she said.

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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