When Whitey Kirschenmann took over management of the Habitat Humanity Store in Oak Harbor six years ago, it was a sleepy business run by eight volunteers.
Since then, the store has increased its revenue by five times and is run by an army of 107 volunteers.
Paired with the income from its sister store in Freeland, Habitat for Humanity of Island County has built 36 homes on Whidbey and Camano islands.
It’s success is sort of an anomaly, Kirschenmann said.
While most Habitat for Humanity Stores are stocked with home building supplies and a little furniture, the Oak Harbor store sells only furniture and decorative items — a model that is both unique and wildly successful.
“The cool thing about it is we’re trying to affect families,” Kirschenmann said. “We normally give a house to families who have kids.”
“We’re trying to break the cycle and get the kids back on track.”
Kirchenmann, who retired from retail furniture sales before his Habitat work, said working with volunteers is different than working with paid employees.
“They want come to work,” Kirchenmann said. “They have a purpose and they want to accomplish something.”
Kirschenmann said he was originally going to stay two to three years to get the store going strong, but the volunteers are why he’s still there.
He said the average length of stay for volunteers is roughly three months, but the store has people who have been there for years.
Jeanne Wilson has volunteered at the Habitat store since 2002 and attributes the Oak Harbor store’s success to Kirschenmann’s leadership.
“It’s because of Whitey’s management style and his respect for the volunteers,” Wilson said.
She comes back to volunteer each week because she finds it satisfying to give homes to people who would not normally have one.
Those who receive a home through Habitat for Humanity are required to put in 500 hours of volunteer service with Habitat.
These volunteers, Wilson said, “are very dedicated and a lot of them come back after receiving their home. They work very hard.”
As a result of their shared passion, volunteers build a strong and lasting camaraderie.
Oak Harbor resident Jessica Pursel, who has volunteered there for a year and a half, came initially out of boredom but stayed for the enjoyment.
“I needed something to do and this looked pretty fun and challenging,” Pursel said. “I’ve loved it ever since.”
Of the 107 volunteers currently giving time to Habitat, 60 are active-duty Navy servicemen and women. As part of their service, Habitat offers free pick-up service for those donating furniture.
“It if wasn’t for the military men and women to assist us with pick ups,” Wilson said. “We wouldn’t be as successful.”
“There’s no way we’d be able to do this without the help of the Navy,” Kirshenmann said.
Calvin Hewitt, Habitat for Humanity of Island County executive director, said the success of the Oak Harbor store has contributed to Island County’s many completed houses.
“The stores are a key component of our program in Island County,” said “It provides us a lot of visibility and generates a significant amount of money to support our low-income housing efforts.”
However, Hewitt said, the Habitat’s staff and leadership can’t take all the credit.
“The success of the store is dependent on the community for both the donations and the purchases.”
Habitat also feels like it does its little bit for the planet by repurposing furniture that may have been thrown away.
“We like to think we keep a lot of stuff out of the landfill by reusing and recycling,” Hewitt said. “We’re contributing to environment as well.”
Visit www.islandcountyhabitat.org for more information.