Martin Buhr & Mary Wales

Martin Buhr - MennoHomes

Of all the forces that shaped Martin Buhr’s life and values, two things from his early years stand out in his mind.

The first is the influence of the crowded conditions of living in a two-room Manitoba farmhouse with his eight siblings and his parents. To this day, Martin says he’s “consciously aware of the need for adequate affordable housing. It resonates in me because of my family experience.”

The second is “God’s box” – a small metal strongbox in which his mother would place 10 per cent of the revenue from sales of the farm’s milk and eggs. She would put the money toward the church and the Mennonite Central Committee, “because it was the right thing to do.”

These factors have created a continuing commitment and passion. That’s evident in the enthusiasm Martin displays for MennoHomes Inc., a non-profit organization he played a leading role in starting that is building affordable housing units.

When Martin and his wife Pauline were working as Mennonite volunteers at Jubilee Partners near Athens, Georgia in 1999 doing refugee settlement work, he developed a proposal for what would become MennoHomes. MCC was receptive, and other Mennonite organizations, congregations and individuals came on board. There has been wider community support as well.

Using surplus church land, the first MennoHomes project is taking shape at 220 Village Road (near Westmount) in Kitchener. The site will feature 16 three-bedroom units, in eight duplexes. “We’re doing three-bedroom units because most developers aren’t.”

Martin is pleased with how things have worked out. When the site was first proposed (envisioning 24 units to be built), neighbours objected to the density of the development. But through good faith negotiations, MennoHomes, the City of Kitchener and the neighbours arrived at a compromise: a slight reduction in density, bringing all the units to the street front, a land swap with the City that will provide for a community garden and no increase in the land price. Cook Homes Ltd. is doing the building on a stipulated cost contract.

The organization has raised $375,000 including $15,000 unit sponsorships from church congregations and gifts from foundations and donors. This generosity has allowed MennoHomes to qualify for government grants.

Meanwhile, the second MennoHomes project is under way. In a partnership with Blaze Properties Inc. MennoHomes provided its allocation from the Region of Waterloo for affordable units in the City of Waterloo, and Blaze Properties contributed a 1.5-acre parcel of land on Fischer-Hallman Rd. near Erb St. in Waterloo. As a result, a 50-unit stacked townhouse development will have half of its units designated as affordable housing for singles and seniors. Through this innovative collaboration, MennoHomes and Blaze Properties will create 25 new affordable homes at no cost to the non-profit organization. Blaze Properties will retain MennoHomes as a consultant on affordable housing issues.

Although these developments have involved the energy and participation of many people and agencies, Martin has been there through it all, as founder and chair of MennoHomes. He sees it as a logical progression in a career that has taken him around the world, helping people in communities for more than four decades.

Exercising the Mennonite principles he had learned as a youth, Martin went as church volunteer to Taiwan in 1960 to work with the indigenous mountain people there. He helped organize mobile clinics, in which he would go to remote villages with a doctor, dentist, public health nurse and an interpreter. He also organized food distribution runs.

Martin returned to Canada in 1963, but soon made his way to Pennsylvania to work for the Mennonite Central Committee. It was there that he met Pauline. She had worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Those were turbulent times in the United States, and Martin soon found himself facing a draft board, even though he was not a US citizen. Recalling the Mennonite conscientious objectors who had inspired him to go to Taiwan, Martin sought and obtained that status, pointing to his years in Taiwan as evidence of his pacifist beliefs.

The University of Waterloo beckoned, so Martin and Pauline moved to Ontario in 1965. Martin began working on his BA, to which he eventually added an MSW from Wilfrid Laurier University. In 1967, he took a position with the Ministry of Community and Social Services, where he worked until 1978.

Martin was then hired as executive director of the House of Friendship, a position he held until 1998. When he arrived, the organization was at a crossroads with respect to housing. It had operated a men’s hostel for many years, but “there was such a demand for emergency shelter beds, we either had to expand or get out of the hostel business.”

Martin and the “very forward looking” board of directors chose to respond to the community need. Over the next several years, House of Friendship built a new hostel, Cramer House (for people with psychiatric issues) and Eby Village, a 64-unit supportive housing complex for individuals. There was some neighbourhood opposition to the latter, but eventually wrinkles were ironed out. Martin is particularly proud of Eby Village because “the support component is very crucial. With the right support, people can learn to live independently,” he says.

Another accomplishment during Martin’s tenure as executive director was the integration of men’s and women’s alcohol and drug treatment programs. In 1984, Martin recommended that The Working Centre establish what became St. John’s Kitchen. This was part of a community consultation that recognized the importance of establishing a place where a free meal would be served daily. Martin also initiated and was a founding board member of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

When Martin retired from House of Friendship in 1998, he knew he wasn’t really retiring. So he’s not surprised that he found himself leading MennoHomes. “My motto is from the song The Impossible Dream – ‘to dream the impossible dream… to run where the brave dare not go … to right the unrightable wrong.’ When you start with an impossible dream, you’re staring into a void because you don’t know where the resources are to realize that dream. But in a community like this, you know the quest is possible.”

Martin wants to acknowledge the key role played by Mennonite Central Committee. As sponsor, MCC gave credibility to MennoHomes in its quest to provide affordable housing units. Martin also wants to express his deep gratitude to all those who shared in the vision through donations and support.

Mary Bales - Heartwood Place

Mary Bales remembers precisely what provided inspiration for Heartwood Place.

It was in August of 2000. She had just rented an apartment to a prospective tenant. Immediately after completing the transaction, Mary was approached by some other prospective tenants – a couple with a young child. They were sad to learn that the place had already been rented, because they were desperate to find a home. They told Mary they had been turned down by several landlords because they had a child.

Moved by the family’s plight, Mary decided as she walked home that summer evening to do something about the lack of affordable housing in Waterloo Region.

As a landlord for almost 30 years, she had bought and fixed up several houses, providing much-needed apartments. As a real estate agent, she had dealt with a wide range of house buyers, from first-timers struggling to come up with a down payment to executives seeking the “right” million-dollar home.

Active in the community, Mary had seen the effects of cutbacks in social spending, the lifting of rent controls on vacant rental units, and the need for Out of the Cold facilities.

Housing can provide a safe and secure place to live that serves as a person’s bedrock, a foundation from which to deal with life’s issues. “Putting money into social programs is good, but if you don’t have an address – a place to sleep, a place to eat – how effective can social programs really be?”

Holding meetings on her front porch with like-minded friends and associates, Mary soon had a committed group of people working with her. Within a year, Heartwood Place was incorporated, and an offer on the former Duthler Textiles building at 19 Gaukel St. in Kitchener was signed.

Broad community support made the project a reality. The organization received $495,000 from the Region of Waterloo; $450,000 from CMHC’s Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program; and $300,000 from Clarica. A community campaign raised $30,0000 from the Motz Family Foundation; $40,000 from Economical Insurance; $30,000 from Spaenaur; $20,000 from Schneider’s Foods; and over $100,000 from the Heartwood Place Board of Directors.

With the funding in place, the hard work was just beginning. The old building was emptied by volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, local church members, and friends and directors of Heartwood Place.

Now there was much work to be done to convert the former textile store into 33 apartments with large windows, high ceilings, hardwood floors, quality insulation and efficient mechanical systems. With the participation of Snider Reichard March Architects, Duane Erb Construction, TD Commercial Banking and dozens of volunteers, the project became a reality. The official opening took place on December 5, 2003.

The building features 12 bachelor, 12 one-bedroom and 9 two-bedroom apartments. There are also meeting and community rooms, as well as a roof-top garden and patio. The common spaces are designed to accommodate a variety of programs and activities for a broad range of interests, including topics for learning and self-improvement. All rents are set at the CMHC guidelines for affordability; tenants in 12 apartments have rent geared to income under the Regional rent-supplement program.

“We had thoughts and hopes of how our organization might make a difference and we incorporated those ideas into our Guiding Principles,” Mary wrote in the organization’s fall newsletter. “Little did we know just how wonderful it would be to stand in our first building and welcome new tenants. No one could have predicted the impact of their happiness and gratefulness for having a new place to live that was clean, bright and comfortable. It was the first time for many to have appliances that really worked.”

Commitment to a cause or a project like this doesn’t just happen. It comes from a lifetime of learning and caring. Mary was born in Lowell, Indiana and grew up on a farm. She says her values come from the supportive environment in which she was raised. “I grew up in a rural community where people tended to help each other. My parents were active in the community. Everyone took part.”

After studying engineering at Purdue University, Mary studied English and later worked in a research lab in Kansas City. She and her former husband moved to K-W in 1969; Mary attained two Master’s degrees in English at the University of Waterloo. She started working in real estate in 1974, which she found to be an agreeable environment for her interests in buildings and working with people.

But, true to those values she had incorporated from family and community, Mary has never focused just on business or the bottom line. She has been a very active community participant in Waterloo Region for many years.

As a board member at the YWCA of K-W, she chaired a fund-raising campaign that raised nearly a million dollars for the organization’s Freedom Fund and increased its donor base dramatically. Mary also worked with the United Way’s Annual Campaign and Planned Giving Program, served as a director of Grand River Hospital and is serving her third term as a member of the UW board of governors. In addition, she has recently endowed a graduate scholarship in the Arts Faculty at UW.

Never afraid to roll up her sleeves and dig right in, Mary does a lot more than write cheques for good causes. She’s not afraid to pick up a hammer and saw to participate in the physical work. But there is more than that. Her commitment, spirit and drive have been the inspiration for the success of Heartwood Place. Board members, donors and volunteers have absorbed her enthusiasm.

“One of my strengths is blending a strong social conscience and strong business acumen,” she says. “A social conscience means trying to understand what people want and need, and trying to do something to make that happen. I could be a wealthy woman if I had just concentrated on business success. But amassing money has never been my primary goal.” Mary’s contribution was recognized in late February by the Chamber of Commerce as “Community Leader of the Year”.

Heartwood Place’s vision is that “communities of hope will emerge as we provide safe, affordable and adequate housing.” Mary knows that can’t happen in a vacuum, or merely by erecting structures. Everyone in the organization is committed to continued management. “We won’t build it and disappear,” she says.

Nor is Heartwood Place content to rest on its laurels. Plans are under way to restore the former Cambridge Reporter property at 26 Ainslie St. in Galt.

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