Construction and Nonprofits

Home is where the heart is

Executive director of home repair nonprofit retires after 34 years of making a difference.

December 25, 2015
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Dave Jacobs
A Hearts for Homeowners campaign to raise $100,000 for the nonprofit’s Endowment Fund will honor Dave Jacobs after his retirement. Courtesy Home Repair Services

There are about 22,000 vulnerable West Michigan homeowners whom Dave Jacobs took care of under his watch as executive director of Home Repair Services.

And now his watch is ended. “The 65th birthday mark (in December) is a handy mark to let you know when to retire,” he joked.

Jacobs has spent the last 34 years leading the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit, which specializes in post-purchase homeownership services for lower-income homeowners. Home Repair Services offers a number of services, like doing home repairs and remodeling projects, helping with energy efficiency, financial counseling, and creating access ramps for people with disabilities. Last year alone it built about 45 ramps.

After a lifetime of service to the needy in West Michigan, Jacobs is officially retiring Dec. 31.

“It has been a huge privilege, and I have felt so incredibly blessed. … The fact that we sent repair trucks to those 22,000 homes over the years, that just happened,” he said. “We found that this is a community that cares about its homeowners, and we found a mission that resonated within the community. And we found these homeowners were amazing people and it was often enjoyable coming alongside them.”

The board also is honoring Jacobs by launching the Hearts for Homeowners campaign, which has an ambitious goal of raising $100,000 for the nonprofit’s Endowment Fund, which is kept by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

It’s a testament to the legacy Jacobs is leaving.

“There was a director that started the agency in 1979, and Dave came in 1982. He’s been director from day one,” said Joel Ruiter, who is replacing Jacobs as the new executive director and has known him for most of those years.

“We attend the same church. He’s someone I’ve known for about 30 years, but obviously knowing someone as a fellow church member and knowing someone for what they do is a different scenario. I’ve said to folks in my few weeks here, ‘I’ve long admired HRS and Dave, and now that I’m on the inside, I have nothing but greater admiration.’”

Ruiter has spent the last five years in community outreach and marketing at Covenant Retirement Communities, an Illinois-based nonprofit with a campus in Grand Rapids. He assumed his duties at Home Repair Services Nov. 9, although Jacobs has stayed on until the end of the year to assist with the transition and “to help Joel get off on the right foot.”

“I want to thank you so much for the trust you showed to me personally, and for your commitment to the mission of Home Repair Services. I can honestly say that I loved my job and will miss it,” Jacobs wrote to his team in a farewell announcement.

“My prayer for Home Repair Services is that it will continue to empower the resourceful while showing compassion to the vulnerable, and that you will continue to support this important mission. After retirement (my wife) Lois and I plan to do a lot of traveling, but I would also like to volunteer for some of my favorite nonprofits. But I hope that volunteer work involves a hammer more than a keyboard.”

Jacobs attended Calvin College, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology. He received a Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan. Before coming to Home Repair Services, Jacobs spent five years as a staff social worker at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

In his time at Home Repair Services, he also had a hand in helping to create the Kent County Habitat for Humanity in 1983, and in January of this year, the Community Food Club of Greater Grand Rapids, a membership-based, grocery-store-style collaborative that provides food and educational programs to low-income Grand Rapids residents.

In Jacobs’ time at Home Repair Services, the nonprofit worked in every township in the county and “touched wherever the poverty was,” he said.

One of his favorite memories was when Home Repair Services purchased its current building, but Jacobs said he’s most proud of the work he did with foreclosure intervention and developing Home Repair Services’ energy-efficiency component.

“Our culture still isn’t very interested in energy efficiency, and it’s been hard to find public funding to make poorer homes more efficient,” he said.

“I know that homeownership is not for everyone, and this city badly needs more affordable rental units. But homeownership has been a wonderful thing for my wife, Lois, and me, and likewise for the many people who come to Home Repair Services.”

Jacobs said the organization became more mission-focused in the early 1990s. He did not become bored doing the same job for 34 years because the industry’s many changes constantly made it feel like a different job.

“I think a lot of people would want to have new experiences. I think what happened for me was Home Repair Services changed over 34 years. It doesn’t resemble the same thing,” he said.

Jacobs’ philosophy on houses is simple: Houses were owned before their current owners and should outlast their current owners to be owned by future owners, and it is up to all the owners to leave the houses better than they found them.

If Home Repair Services could be considered his home, then Jacobs certainly lived up to his philosophy in the opinion of Ruiter, the nonprofit’s newest “homeowner,” so to speak. In fact, Jacobs did such a good job leading the nonprofit that Ruiter said there’s not much he needs to change. The only notable challenge he’s facing is finding workers, but that’s the same challenge the entire construction industry is facing right now.

“Home Repair Services is a fantastic organization with wonderful long-term people. It’s financially strong, so nothing requires immediate overhaul or attention. Dave has done a fabulous job, and to take it over is to take over something strong,” he said.

“I mean, there are always challenges in the nonprofit and social services world. One of our challenges going forward is to find people to actually do the repairs. With the recession, people got out of the building trades for a long time. And that’s something we need to confront.”

Jacobs said working with the leadership in Grand Rapids, particularly the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, was an incredible way to build connections in the community and gain confidence at telling his story. He encourages nonprofits to be strategic about their mission and policies.

Perhaps the most important lesson is his philosophy on leaving a home better than you found it, and if making a home better is the mark of a rich career, Jacobs is retiring a wealthy man.

“I believe the south side of Grand Rapids looks a whole lot better today than it did in 1982,” he said.

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