From Volunteer to CEO of Habitat for Humanity Tucson

By Christy Krueger

More than 5,000 volunteers a year support Habitat for Humanity Tucson. Some lend their skills short term, others stay for years. Many help by building houses, while a smaller number work in administration and at the HabiStore. 

One became chief executive officer.

After volunteering for 14 years, T. VanHook Schuld accepted the position as Habitat’s leader in 2014, yet it took some convincing from her fellow board members. The selection committee had already offered the CEO job to another person who had to decline due to a family emergency. So they looked to VanHook Schuld.

“The head of the selection committee called me multiple times,” she said. “My husband had died and I wasn’t sure I wanted to change.” She was working as the community development director for the Town of Marana at the time. But with her deep roots in Habitat, she realized making the move was the right thing to do.

VanHook Schuld’s history with Habitat began with her mother, who was a volunteer. “She was terminally ill with cancer. She asked me and my sister to take over her spot with Habitat.” Since then, VanHook Schuld has become a Habitat expert in every aspect, from homeowner applications to land buying to home building. 

A potential homeowner’s application and acceptance process for a Habitat for Humanity house is a long one. Applicants, explained VanHook Schuld, must meet income qualifications, be able to repay the loan (Habitat is the mortgage company) and be partners in sweat equity, meaning they must contribute at least 250 hours of work on their home or other Habitat homes. They are also required to take financial classes.

Habitat Tucson generally buys land for the homes and builds the infrastructure. “We build in multiple places. We go into small infill projects in different parts of town,” VanHook Schuld said. In April, Habitat had 26 homes under construction in four locations. 

Generally, architects handle the home designs, but Pima Community College design students are becoming more involved through a student competition started by VanHook Schuld four years ago. “The great thing is the students get to see their design built,” she said.

Another collaboration with the college involves a new center that allows house walls to be built indoors. “PCC students learn to build them and take them out to a site and snap on the wall,” VanHook Schuld said. “Doing it this way allows us to have better training.”

In some cases, property is donated. Earlier this year, Tucson Foundations paid for land on the west side of Tucson and funded the building of 19 homes. It also donated an additional amount for families affected by COVID-19.

During the shelter-at-home orders, volunteers did not work, and the Habi-Store was closed. “The construction team is doing all the work themselves, without volunteers. Some store people are on the building crew. We have only one person per house or one per floor.” Six families were slated to move in on June 30, and VanHook Schuld said at press time that she might have to do some painting herself to get all the homes finished. 

“People don’t think of nonprofits as a business, but we are,” VanHook Schuld said. “One-third of our income is from the store, one-third is from mortgages and one-third is from government contracts, fundraising and community outreach.” 

She explained that Habitat Tucson does not depend on the national organization, Habitat for Humanity, financially. “We’re our own independent organization and make our decisions. We support them financially; they don’t fund us.” The national organization does help through associations with sponsor companies like Whirlpool, which provides a stove, stove vent and refrigerator for each house.

Habitat’s A Brush with Kindness program allows the organization to help homeowners who may be unemployed, single parents or elderly residents who need minor property work. “We go in, as long as it just needs a spruce-up, and do painting and yard work if they can’t do it. The program is great for Rotary volunteers, a sorority or neighborhood group. We like having the UA women’s basketball team because they can paint without ladders.”

Between her time shopping for land, leading outreach programs with other organizations, talking to donors and visiting design centers, VanHook Schuld’s best days are dedication days. 

“It’s when the family gets their home,” she said. “You hear little feet running through the house.” 

Once, she watched a 4-year-old proudly showing her friends her new house along with a refrigerator that her family didn’t have to share with anyone. “That’s my favorite part of the job.”

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