Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Ken Cates has been overseeing the continually expanding services offered to the community by the Fort Hood Area Habitat for Humanity and the adjacent Habitat Restore for more than a year.
As executive director, he runs the everyday operations while his staff and volunteers stay busy in the outer offices fielding phone calls, checking in donations for the Restore, or helping customers load their vehicles with repurposed goods.
For a low price, the public can buy construction materials, furniture, cabinetry, electrical supplies, windows, decorative cabinet handles, recycled non-oil based paints, appliances and commodes — lots of commodes — just to name a few of the items available.
“We are the best kept secret but we don’t want to be anyone’s secret,” Cates said.
All donations are welcome at the Restore except for bedding, linens or oil-based products, which creates a hazmat issue when it comes to disposal. All revenues from the Restore cover the operational costs for the organization.
Habitat for Humanity, an international organization, has been helping people find their new beginnings through home ownership since 1976, but its concept actually began in 1942 (www.habitat.org/about/history/timeline.)
“It’s not only a new beginning, they are building a future,” Cates said. “We are providing a hand up, not a hand out. The parents will pass this knowledge onto their kids and 70 percent of them will become homeowners.”
To qualify, candidates must prove a genuine need and fill out an application for consideration.
“We are not just going to give you a home because you want it,” Cates said. “You must meet the financial criteria. If you can qualify for a home loan (without HFH’s help), then that is not what we want.”
People who qualify for consideration of an HFH home must have shown a struggle to maintain their basic needs and pay their rent and cannot qualify for traditional loan, he said.
“If a person qualifies, we provide a loan with 0 percent interest and a mortgage payment that can be anywhere from 50 to 60 percent less than rent. But they must be willing to partner and cooperate,” Cates said.
Candidates must be willing to put in the required hours of sweat equity for their home. This includes attending finance, home ownership and maintenance classes as well as hands-on hours helping to build their house.
“A family of four is required to put in a minimum of 300 hours. Kids 16 and older get their own number of hours with remaining hours going to family, friends, and working fundraisers,” Cates said. “Through the process of sweat equity, once we get the house going, they need to be there everyday. They have personal sweat in the building.”
And by learning the basic components of construction and maintenance, Cates said new homeowners do their own repairs, saving a lot of contractor costs and giving themselves financial peace.
Since Cates took over last year, the number of homes built has increased from 1¼ a year over a five-year period to eight houses in 2016. Since 1994, the Fort Hood Habitat for Humanity has built 70 homes.
House No. 70 in Killeen is built but still needs to be finished on the inside. House No. 71, one lot over from House 70, is scheduled to break ground in January along with two more homes in Temple.
Cates’ first year was not without challenges, including a robbery of their construction trailer and portable construction tools in early 2016. He admits he almost walked away. But when they closed on House No. 69 and he heard the speeches at the home’s dedication that recognized those who partnered, volunteered or donated food, and when he saw the faces of people who were approved for a new home, that’s what kept him coming back.
“It’s the people,” he said. “The people I work with and connect with have giving hearts and a passion for servitude.”
Since taking over the position, Cates said he has reduced operating costs by 15 percent through partnerships he has formed with local businesses, and in 2017 he hopes to see another 30 percent reduction in its electrical costs through its partnership with Oncor Electric.
“Oncor is paying 70 percent of the cost to replace all the lighting throughout the building, which will result in the 30 percent savings,” he said.
He said he also reached out to other communities including Temple and Nolanville, as well as other area nonprofits to “further expand where we help.”
Working in partnership with the city of Nolanville, a new initiative to house homeless veterans breaks ground in March for two of 12 approved homes.
The Fort Hood Area Habitat for Humanity (www.fhahfh.org) touches the lives of 1,000 people weekly, Cates said. This includes assisting with housing classes, repairs and opportunities at the Restore. It gives people a place to work or volunteer, shop, save money on home repair supplies, and donate goods.
In addition, the community outreach extends the arm of Habitat for Humanity to other areas to help people. HFH has partnered with Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) in Temple that assists with down payment for homeowners that don’t qualify for HFH. They have also partnered with Keep Temple Beautiful and the City of Temple Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and are revitalizing east Temple.
A life of service
Cates grew up in a family that was service minded. His father, Jay Cates, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, and who retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, taught his son the value of service to others.
“Whatever we have or don’t have, always help others in whatever we can do,” he told me. “And whatever job you have, excel at that job. Always excel and do the best you can.”
Cates’ military career spans nearly three decades and includes 18 months in the Army Reserve; four years in the United States Coast Guard where he served on the USCG Cutter Bramble, an ice breaker and buoy tender, in the Great Lakes — the last boat his dad served on before retiring as engineering officer 3rd command and Cates’ first boat clearing ice on the Great Lakes. He also patrolled the waters off Miami, intercepting drug runners and participating in search, rescue and sometimes recovery missions for civilians and fishing boats in trouble.
“The most rewarding was the rescue portion,” Cates said. “Everything after that is recovery.”
The Haitian Boat Lift during the early 1990s was his second most rewarding assignment. People would pile onto rowboats and sailboats seeking asylum in the United States. Cates said they were safe as long as they stayed in the Gulf of Gonâve, but the moment they left the calm waters of the gulf to venture into the open sea, they risked going under.
People were pulled to safety from the choppy waters onto the Coast Guard cutters and taken to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Gitmo) for processing, where those who genuinely needed political asylum were retained while others were deported to Haiti.
With his Coast Guard career ending, he joined the U.S. Army where he served in various capacities. One year before retiring from the Army he started searching for a civilian job. He needed a position that would use all of his skills and intelligence and support his growing family. Cates and his wife, Melissa, are parents to an extended family of seven daughters, one son-in-law, and two grandchildren. “It’s a ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’ scenario,” he said, smiling.
His goal was to stay in the Killeen area so he took a job with a company that repairs faulty cars for vets. But their training program fell through and just as he was about to expand his job search to Arizona, where his parents live, and New Mexico, his home state, Dick Chapin, board president for the Killeen Area Habitat for Humanity gave him a call.
“The full-time executive director we had left Habitat for another job and we were in need for a highly qualified, motivated person to take over the helm as executive director,” Chapin said. “Ken had a number of children in various organizations who did not want to leave Killeen.”
Chapin pitched the job to Cates, but because of their personal relationship, he had to recuse himself from the selection process. Chapin said he suggested Cates to the board because of his energy, his Christian beliefs and straightforwardness in his approach to everything that he was involved in from the military to church.
“The vice president, secretary and treasurer conducted interviews of three different people, Ken being one of them,” Chapin said. “Ken was selected from the three as being the most highly motivated, and his aggressiveness to want to make Habitat a better organization.”
“The day before losing my active-duty pay I was hired,” he said. “God has a sense of humor.”