In Dr. Cathy Collins’s cornflower blue office, there is an “altar” of gifts that the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh has been given over the years: a flute from a Peruvian family who live in a Habitat home; wood from the 2010 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree that would become lumber in a house built by the nonprofit; an antique bottle her construction manager found while digging a local foundation. “It’s my point of inspiration,” says Collins.
Then there’s her desk. Stacked with papers, it reflects a person who clearly has a lot of irons in the fire. “I know where everything is,” she says reassuringly. “I read that a messy desk is a sign of creativity.”
Sounds like a fair bet, since Collins is all about exploring new ideas. When this Arkansas native arrived in the Hudson Valley 10 years ago to serve as executive director at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center, she brought with her a world of diverse experience. As a student, she spent time in India on a Fulbright grant and in Senegal on a Rotary scholarship. When she returned home, she became the first executive director for the Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission for the City of Little Rock. Collins has also managed an Arkansas gubernatorial primary campaign; taught middle, high school, and college students about international culture and government; earned a doctorate in human and organizational systems at Fielding Graduate University; and raised two daughters (now 15 and 18).
When Collins came to Habitat Newburgh five years ago, only two houses on now bustling East Parmenter Street had been completed by the organization, which builds housing at no profit with zero-interest mortgages for low income families. Collins thought more should be done. “I kept saying ‘We should pick a particular place where we want to work, and then all of our effort goes into that place.’ ” Focusing on East Parmenter, she launched a plan to rebuild the entire street of 22 homes, arguing that when blight and abandoned buildings are reduced or eliminated in a targeted fashion, the crime rate will drop.
“I remember a board meeting, and they were saying it’s getting too expensive,” says Collins. “But I said, ‘No, we’re finishing it.’ I was bound and determined.” Not only were the Habitat’s houses built, but other homes on the block got a spiffing up through the organization’s A Brush with Kindness exterior preservation program. Today, the street looks like a movie set, vibrant with children playing and people chatting on their porches. Collins walks it regularly with potential donors. “I was looking at the map of 911 calls in the east end of the city,” she often tells them. “In a sea of red, there were two clear spots. The first was the hospital, and as I looked closer I realized the other was East Parmenter Street.”
With this proof that her plan is working, Collins embarked on a mission to put more families in homes more quickly. She drafted detailed building schedules, expanded the time devoted to each project, took advantage of AmeriCorps volunteers, and partnered with local churches and other organizations. Today, Habitat Newburgh numbers 76 homes (up from 43 in 2010) in its portfolio, with a goal of reaching 100 this year. The nonprofit is also rehabbing a cluster of homes on South Miller Street, and developing a three-story Live/Work housing unit adjacent to the group’s Washington Street headquarters.
Collins points out that people receiving Habitat housing are not getting a handout, but a hand up — a chance at a better life. “They’re on the cusp,” she says. “There’s a great analogy I always like to talk about. You can get too comfortable with that feeling of pulling people out of the river and never going back up the river to find out why they keep falling into it. I’m more about going back up the river, finding out why these people are in this situation, and changing it. It takes more money and more time, but it has a greater sustainable impact.”