Meet Our Heroes
Allen F. Benson
Allan F. Benson has been a big part of Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity. He is a freelance reporter and journalist for the area publications in the Fox Valley area. Al has always made sure the community was informed of what Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity was doing since our first public home dedication in 1991 for the Seay family on Titsworth Court in Aurora.
Al Benson has been an Aurora native his entire life. He attended and graduated from Aurora University, when it was still Aurora College, in 1964 with an English major. During his time at the college, he participated in multiple extracurricular activities such as writing for the school newspaper, the yearbook, and the Writing Magazine. While he was attending Aurora College, he was a part-time editor at the Beacon-News. After graduating, he became a full-time photo journalist at the Beacon-News for a few years. He was then offered a job at the Aurora University Public Relations office as a writer and photographer. After his time there, Al worked as a freelance editor for several magazines and corporations, such as AT&T. In between all his reporting, Allan eventually got married to his lovely wife, Jean Benson, in 1989 and with this marriage inherited five stepchildren.
Al wrote a story about Fox Valley Habitat and the first home that was being dedicated in 1991 while working at Rockwell International. He volunteered to do the story at the request of Robert Richardson, former supervisor at the Aurora College. This is when he connected with Duane Mevis, one of the founding fathers of Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity. He started covering all the ground breaking and dedication ceremonies, came out to take photos and do stories on the corporate volunteer groups that came out to work, and got to know all the families working side by side the other volunteers. As his passion for the mission grew the more he wanted to do for Habitat. So, he decided he wanted to serve on the Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity Board of Directors. Al served many years on the board as Affiliate Publicist, documenting the changes of the affiliate, writing stories and taking pictures of the building progress of the homes being built and families who were going to be living in them. Through his pictures and articles in the area newspapers he made sure the word got out about this affordable housing ministry in Aurora. Even though it has been many years since he has served on the Board, his commitment to the mission and the families continues and now spans over three decades. Al has watched 67 homes being built and attended more volunteer build sites and volunteer meetings than any one person. When asked about why he connected with the organization he said, “I liked how the families have been helped and how this organization has changed these families’ lives forever.” His most memorable Habitat moments are the first home dedication for the Seay family in September 1991, most recent groundbreaking ceremony for the Owino family during the Covid pandemic in October 2020, and the first virtual Faith Build Home Dedication for the Estrada Family in December 2020.
When asked about the biggest misconception about Habitat for Humanity, Benson said, “Most people think the organization is simply giving away houses, when in reality it’s a partnership with the homeowners. They have to put in hundreds of sweat equity hours once they have qualified for the house.” He also emphasized that the organization is a nonprofit and needs donations to operate and build more homes. If more people knew how much Habitat for Humanity does for the community, they would be as dedicated to helping the organization as he is.
Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity would like to thank Allan Benson for all of his many contributions and recognizes Al by naming him Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity’s “Habitat Hero of 2021”. CEO, Jeffrey Barrett noted, “I have worked with Al Benson since 1997. No Board Member, no volunteer, no staff member, has been more dedicated to promoting the mission, opportunity and accomplishments of Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity.It has been and continues to be an honor to have Allan Benson on our team.”
Al has helped the organization grow into what it is today and we cannot thank him enough. Al Benson’s constant dedication to the betterment of Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity and the surrounding community is greatly appreciated. Honoring Al Benson as the 2021 Habitat Hero is a long overdue recognition to commemorate his contributions to Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity and our homeowners.
Since April 2015, Allen Green has been the jack of all trades and our Construction Supervisor at Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity. Al has overseen and built thirteen homes for Fox Valley Habitat. We would like to commemorate Allen Green as a Habitat Hero for all of the work he has done for our organization. We truly appreciate all of his hard work and expertise for aiding us to achieve our mission of living in a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
Allen Green is originally from Ohio, but was raised in Aurora, Illinois. He went to East Aurora High School and joined the Marine Corps at the age of 19. When Al returned from the service, he became a carpenter and he is still a carpenter to this day. Before working at Habitat, he was in between jobs and working at Home Depot. Al found out about Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity from his brother-in-law, Bob Channel, the Manager of In-Kind Donations at Fox Valley Habitat. He says that he genuinely enjoys building homes and helping out those who are in need. He also really enjoys teaching the homeowners and spending time with the Builders Club, a group of retired folks who volunteer on a regular basis.
Al is very grateful to anyone who has ever volunteered or donated to Habitat in the past because their contributions help us achieve our mission. He says that the materials that are donated are very useful and help them finish the homes. He also thinks that anyone who volunteers their time to help contribute to the cause is very kind. Allen’s favorite thing about working for Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity is the people that he works for. He noted, “Jeffery Barrett, our CEO, is one of the greatest bosses I ever had. Jeff is a really nice guy and he is easy to get along with.” Al suggested that anyone who is on the fence about volunteering to try it once and he guarantees that anyone who volunteers will enjoy it. He recommends volunteering with your co-workers at a Company Team Building Day because they are a lot of fun.
Al thinks the biggest misconception that people have about Habitat for Humanity is that the houses that are built are free. The houses cost almost the same to build as regular homes and the homeowners still have to pay an affordable mortgage. Al has a lot of respect for the homeowners because it is a huge commitment to become a part of our program and they are working for their house more than a regular homeowner would. He still thinks joining our program is worth it because our homeowners learn a lot of important things so they become successful homeowners. He encourages any form of help because the more help they receive the faster the houses are built and the faster that the homeowners can benefit from the homes.
In 2019, Al decided it was time to retire and after completing his last home with us, he moved with his wife to a new home in Tennessee in April of 2021. He has some restorations to do to his home in Tennessee, but wants to continue to work after the restorations are done. He stated he might work part-time or volunteer at a local Habitat for Humanity in Tennessee.
Al will miss all of his friends that he has worked with on the builds as much as they will miss him. He has touched the hearts of so many people and we all love him and appreciate his time and hard work the last seven years. We are proud to call Allen Green a Habitat Hero!
Mark Smudde is a volunteer who has been with Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity for over two and a half years. Mark recently retired and decided to spend his free time volunteering with Fox Valley Habitat Builders Club. Although construction has not been Mark’s main career, he is a great builder and has already shown his talents in the short time that he’s been with us.
Mark grew up in Geneva and has been an Illinois native for most of his life. He went to Geneva High School and Aurora University, which at the time was just Aurora College. After college, he was hired at Western Electric as a software developer up until he retired in 2018.
Although Mark had never done construction work professionally, he was always interested in learning and how to help with working on his house and his brother’s house. He likes working with the Habitat Builders Club because it was a change of pace and he enjoys the connections he makes with the other builders. Mark found out about Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity from President Jimmy Carter’s advertisements, he then decided to find out more on our website.
He sees Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity as a very beneficial experience for anyone involved and likes that volunteers get to meet new people and bond through achieving a common goal. He also sees our organization as something that can be life-changing to our homeowners as they get a chance to have something they might not have been able to accomplish by themselves. Mark has gained a new motivation for life since working with Habitat because he didn’t want to just sit around after being retired and he wanted to give back to the community. He enjoys the group of people he works with daily at the construction site and he feels a sense of satisfaction showing up to volunteer every day. He is ecstatic to talk about what he has been up to whenever asked because he loves to spread the word about our organization. He feels that what he is doing is providing real value to the world and he is making a difference by just doing his part. Mark says he feels a sense of purpose being able to help in any way he can.
Mark wants to thank the people that help fund, donate, and volunteer. It takes money, material, and labor to meet our mission, and Mark says that they are providing the labor and that without others’ contributions the labor doesn’t get done if they don’t have the materials to work with. Mark also wants to emphasize the importance of volunteering at Habitat, because their contributions also make the whole process go by faster. He recommends volunteering with Habitat when possible, because not everything they do is the same every day. Someone might gravitate towards a different aspect of volunteering, but volunteering multiple times allows them to find out what they enjoy. Volunteering with a group, whether from work or church, also helps enhance the whole experience, so he recommends joining in on our group builds. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new people who also want to give back to their community. Hopefully, as the pandemic comes to an end, we will offer more group volunteering opportunities for more volunteers to find their interests.
A big misconception that Mark sees people have about Habitat is that people think the houses are handouts. Some people think that we are a government-funded program that gives away houses for free to people who cannot afford them. Our homeowners work harder than the average homeowner to become a homeowner and they deserve the help they receive to achieve their dreams. Mark loves the fact that he can help deserving families achieve something they might not have been able to and it makes him feel complete.
So far, Mark has worked on six houses in the Aurora area. He noticed that when Habitat starts to build or renovate homes in a community, that the other surrounding homeowners start to bring new life into their run-down properties, completely changing the look of the whole street. Mark says that not only did Habitat provide houses for the homeowners, but they also improved the whole neighborhood in the process. He is impressed with the impact that’s created and how big of a difference they were able to make.
Mark has made a huge impact in the time that he’s been with us. He is an incredibly skilled worker and we appreciate the passion he has for helping our cause and we wish we had more people like Mark helping our organization. We want to thank him for the work he has done for us so far and the work he will do in the future. Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity would like to name Mark Smudde a Habitat Hero to commemorate his time and efforts for our organization.
Pastor Duane Mevis and his wife Carol are two of our first Habitat Heroes. They have been part of Fox Valley Habitat since its inception. In 1988, when Duane was the pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Naperville, IL, their friends Walt and Zella Brian shared their enthusiasm about Millard Fuller, the co-founder of Habitat for Humanity, with them. They were inspired by the National HFH’s 12th Anniversary celebration, which included a 1,200 mile “House Raising Walk” from Portland, ME to Atlanta, GA. The goal of the walk was to raise awareness, $1.2 million, and build 120 homes. The Mevises decided to participate, and that is where Fox Valley Habitat’s history begins.
Months before the event, Duane and his wife, Carol, walked daily to train for their 5-day, 100-mile walk. As a couple they pledged to raise $1,500, the cost of one home in a third-world country, but they raised more than enough to build two homes. In August of 1988, at the age of 54, Pastor Duane and Carol stepped off in Raleigh/Durham and walked to Winston/Salem NC. They finished in just 5.5 days by walking an average of 20 miles per day! They didn’t think they could continue after the first day, because they had so many blisters and aching muscles. More than 30,000 people took part in this amazing event. Not all participants walked, some built homes, donated money, provided water along the walk or prepared meals for the walkers, and lodging at night.
When they finished the walk, they took their memories and excitement back home. They felt the Habitat experience was too good to leave in North Carolina, so, they decided to invite interested churches and individuals to plan a local affiliate. By 1989 they had enough commitments to get Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity started. I asked Duane what made him want to start an affiliate? He replied, “I was hooked when I experienced the dedications of the homes that were being completed along the walk.” Millard Fuller would do a dedication service when homes were completed. He would give the recipients a Bible and the keys and invite the new homeowners to say something. Invariably they would try to thank everyone and soon break into tears. “This touched our hearts and inspired us to do something”.
In 1990, Pastor Duane was called to serve the United Methodist Church in Hinsdale. As he left Wesley United Methodist in Naperville, he knew his vision was already planted and in good hands with those he left behind to continue the mission. Their new church was located in DuPage County and while there, they worked with DuPage Habitat. Any chance he got he was asking about the progress at Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity. On September 29, 1991, Pastor Duane and Carol had the opportunity to participate in the first home dedication for Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity.
One of the posters they bought after the walk said, “A Little Love Goes A Long Way”. That has certainly been the case with FVHFH. 69 families now have a place they can call home. But, our work is not done. According to Duane, “I see Habitat helping so many more families in the future. I believe everyone deserves a decent, safe place to live.” Duane is an incredible example of how determination, love, and faith can be rewarding and help people from all over.
Pastor Duane was a wonderful visionary and helped to put our affiliate together. What he and his wife have done for Habitat for Humanity will always remain in the hearts of those families that now have a decent place to live.
Written by: Barb Zegiel
After earning his degree in journalism, John Lear started his journalism career in the early 1970’s. Advocating for the less fortunate or the “little guy” has always been important to John. He always strived to do that in his long and illustrious career in journalism that lasted forty years. He was writing for such prestigious publications as The Tampa Tribune and Bloomberg News and even found himself stationed in China for a few years. John was in his early sixties when he retired from journalism in 2016 and was thankful to get out when he did.
After retiring, John found himself trying to figure out what he would do with the rest of his life when he was invited to join a team of guys from his church, known as the Fox Valley Habitat Builder’s Club, to work on the 2017 Faith Build Home. Affordable housing has always been important to John and getting involved in a way that would help people reach the American dream was an offer he could not refuse. After just one build, he was hooked. For the last five years, John has been working with the same team of guys, building houses together and have finished over ten homes.
Building comes easy to John as he has been around and used tools his whole life. He has worked on well over fifty homes and the ones he and the Fox Valley Habitat Builder’s Club have seen from start to finish are the ones he is most proud of. He has truly enjoyed getting to know the Builder’s Club. Each volunteer plays a unique and individual role in the building process and each man is integral to the team and could not be replaced.
John is a humble and quite man and we could not have built as many houses as we have without his help. He volunteers 4 to 5 days a week and works 5 hours a day and has no plans to slow down anytime soon. This is pure dedication for our organization and love for the people who truly are in desperate need of affordable housing. Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity appreciates everything you have done over the years and we consider you one of our Habitat Hero’s. Thank you, John!
Written by: Jared Stine
Walt Woods was born in 1931 and grew up on a farm in rural Virginia as part of a large family. He went to college and worked hard to earn a PHD in Agricultural Science eventually becoming a respected college professor in the South. Helping those less fortunate has always been important to Walt. While living in Virginia, Walt got involved in his local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and it was then that his passion for building houses for those who would ordinarily not be able to own a home was born.
Walt eventually retired from the professional life and found himself in Naperville, Illinois. He was quick to get himself involved in the nearest Habitat for Humanity. That would prove to be none other than Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity. And thus, Walt has volunteered for almost twenty years with Habitat for Humanity.
Since working with Fox Valley Habitat, Walt has been working with the same team of guys. Though there have been many additions over the years. Walt and his team have bonded over the years on the many projects they have worked on together. Collectively, they have done work on over 50 houses and have seen many from start to conclusion. During Covid, Walt and the other 7 men of the Builders Club built and completed 3 homes. The bond that has formed between the men has been something almost indescribable for Walt who feels that it has been an honor to get to know these men while giving back for a meaningful cause. He is extremely proud of the fact that he has been able to have a meaningful second act in his life. At 89, Walt is still working on Habitat homes everyday but believes that after maybe one more year of it he will have to retire from building homes. But, he is optimistic that he will be able to find a meaningful third act of his life.
Walt has helped Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity build 11 homes since 2017 and is in the process of building two more homes this year in 2021. Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity is extremely blessed to have Walt Woods working on the construction site. He is very knowledgeable about construction and works well with teaching homeowners and other volunteers how to build. Walt you are truly an inspiration to everyone you meet. We are honored for you to be one of our Fox Valley Habitat Heroes and we love you!
Written by: Barb Zegiel