Longtime Habitat for Humanity leader set to retire

Construction director rehabilitated 46 homes and built 31 new ones

By Chuck Carlson
Battle Creek Enquirer

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) - Dirk VanStralen sat down the other night and counted up the homes he's helped build and, perhaps more important, the lives he's helped rebuild.

"I've seen a lot of emotion," said VanStralen, who will be retiring March 17 after 14 years as Battle Creek Habitat for Humanity construction director. "There have been a lot of tears of happiness and joy and that's what really makes it rewarding. To see Habitat families improve their lives and situation and how it brings a lot stability to their lives. They have something they can claim as their own. We've have had a lot Habitat families really improve their situation."

For the record, VanStralen and his army of volunteers over the years have rehabilitated 46 homes and built 31 new ones, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer.

He also oversaw 45 critical repair projects to homes that needed everything from new roofs to paint jobs. The group has also installed 80 handicapped-accessible ramps over the past decade.

"It's been very satisfying," said VanStralen, 69. "Let me say this: It's been way more satisfying than it's been frustrating. I have really enjoyed it a lot."

But time and financial circumstances have not been a friend to the nonprofit organization, which has had to deal with a series of problems in recent years that included a fire at its ReStore facility, a relocation of its permanent offices and a downturn in the number of building projects the organization can handle.

VanStralen has been teaming with construction manager Mike King the past few years but it became clear to that fewer projects meant a streamlining of duties.

"It wasn't unusual to have five projects going at a time," he said. "We needed two people. But we've been ratcheting back on projects lately. I had already offered, if it came to that, to step down."

King will now take over as construction director.

"Mike is very capable and is doing a great job," VanStralen said. "It should be a seamless transition."

Kara Werner, Habitat's acting executive director, said VanStralen will be missed.

"He has a very deep passion for helping other people and for exemplifying what Christ's love is," she said. "He's a very strong Christian man and he lives those principles out. He gets along great with volunteer groups and he's real helpful working with them."

For VanStralen, who spent 20 years as a route sales manager for Frito-Lay, moving into construction seemed a perfect fit.

"Before that, I'd had no relation to construction but I've always had construction in my blood," he said. "My dad was a cabinet maker. He never encouraged any of his sons to go into the construction business and none of us did. But all of us had that skill set in the genes."

He followed through with it by helping build his own homes - one in 1982 and another in 1999.

"I always had it as an avocation," he said.

And he had always been close to Habitat, as his father-in-law was active as a volunteer and VanStralen's wife, Gerda, was the organization's program manager.

He knew once before a construction manager position was open but his wife, firmly, suggested he not pursue it.

"She said, "Are you crazy? We can't afford to have you retire,' " he said.

When the position opened up again nearly two years later, he would not be dissuaded. And there he remained, first on a part-time basis and then full-time.

And while it's a bittersweet time for VanStralen, since word has gotten out of his retirement he is finding he may be busier than ever.

"I'll still be hanging around for consultation," he said. "And I'd love to be a full-time volunteer. But I have so many people calling me for jobs. They said, 'I hear you're retiring and I've got this crown moulding job or this tile job.' There are little old ladies saying, 'I wish I had a man around the house.' So I'll stay busy."

Published: Tue, Mar 17, 2015