Bro. Mike Wilmot saw the joy that a new home can bring people in Africa, where he did mission work. When he returned to the States to serve Omaha‘s inner city he set about building houses for the working poor as a way to build neighborhoods and community and to give families their first chance at home ownership. My new story about Wilmot and his Gesu Housing appears in Omaha Magazine. A previous story I did about him and his work can also be found on this blog.
Bro. Mike Wilmot and Gesu Housing: Building Neighborhoods and Community, One House at a Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine
Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately those actions have helped put several first-time home buyers in new houses.
After years coaching-teaching at Omaha Creighton Prep, then doing humanitarian missionary work in Sudan, Africa, he’s made North Omaha his ministry base. He helped build Jesuit Middle School and for more than a decade he’s directed Gesu Housing, a nonprofit he founded that builds affordable new homes in high poverty northeast Omaha.
Gesu helps him fulfill a Jesuit credo of finding God in all things. He gravitated to the Society of Jesus as a youth in his native Milwaukee.
“i got to know many Jesuits, who were very influential in my life,” he says. “They were friendly, they were happy, I admired them, and then I kind of said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what I should do.’ In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that.”
Wilmot’s work in the Sudan impressed upon him the difference a suitable dwelling can make in people’s lives. Back in America he realized many urban residents lack a home of their own.
“Everybody should have a decent place to live,” he says, “but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. It’s proven that kids that grow up in a house their family owns are much better off.”
He says kids and families benefit from the stability home ownership provides.
Enter Gesu (Italian for Jesus) as a provider of quality, affordable houses in a working poor area beset by distressed homes and vacant lots. Gesu mostly does in-fill on empty lots, thus turning neighborhood eyesores into assets. Wilmot lives with fellow Jesuits in the Clifton Hills neighborhood Gesu builds in.
He’s recruited former Prep students as key team members. Dale Barr Jr. grew up in Clifton Hills and has gone from volunteer painter to board member to board president to paid general manager. Dan Hall, whose Hallmarq Homes is the general contractor for Gesu, played ball for Wilmot.
“It’s rewarding work,” says Barr, whose duties include promoting GESU and raising funds. A recent direct mail brochure he sent out netted new supporters. “It’s nice to find people who buy into brother’s vision,” he says.
“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here,” says Hall. “We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.”
Gesu works closely with the city to tap HUD dollars that subsidize half the purchase price of each home and make it possible for low income buyers to obtain low interest loans and to assume small mortgage payments, Omaha 100 helps buyers qualify and educates homeowners in maintaining their places.
Both the Peter Kiewit and Sherwood Foundations have supplied major matching grants. Kiewit recently awarded a second $250,000 grant but that means new funds must be found to match it. A fundraiser is in the works.
Barr says Gesu isn’t as well known as older nonprofit players in the field but what it offers is hard to beat. He says Gesu homes represent “a tremendous deal,” adding, “If you’ve got good credit, you’ve got a job and you qualify for a $70,000 loan you’re going to get into a brand new three-bedroom energy efficient house for $600 per month.” It’s why he hopes more people discover Gesu and support it.
“It’s not just people getting houses, it’s improving neighborhoods, it’s diverse people living together,” says Wilmot. “It’s been proven the best neighborhoods are diverse economically, culturally, ethnically. That’s the mission of Gesu Housing – to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods.
“We’ve got to rebuild the city from the inside out.”
Gesu’s doing its part with 17 homes completed and occupied, five underway and five new ones scheduled to start construction this spring. More support can help build more homes and assist more families to live the American Dream.
“We’ve gone from two houses a year to four and now our cycle’s five,” says Barr. “That’s gotten us in good graces with the city and HUD because we’re doing it, we’re building them and selling them. We don’t have inventory sitting around.
“We’re making our own footprint with these new houses. We try to be a part of the neighborhood. We ask neighbors what we can do better. We give away hams and turkeys to our homeowners and their neighbors at Christmas.”
Hall says the collective neighborhood is protective about Gesu homes because residents appreciate the investment they represent on their block.
“Neighbors that watch houses for me I give a gift card. It goes a long way you know in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it. Once you get people involved if somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me .”
It’s all about building a community, says Wilmot. “We started on Grant Street, then we went to Burdette, now we’re going over to Erskine. Little by little…”
One house at a time.
For details about how to support Gesu, visit http://www.gesuhousing.com or call 402-614-4776.
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A Decent House for Everyone, Jesuit Brother Mike Wilmot Builds Affordable Homes for the Working Poor Through Gesu Housing
Brother Mike Wilmot‘s reputation as a tough guy precedes him, but like most tough guys he’s a pretty soft touch underneath the gruff exterior.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Early in his life as a brother in the Society of Jesus, his superiors asked Mike Willmot what kind of work he wanted to do. The former Marquette (Milwaukee, Wis.) University High School three-sport athlete said he wanted to coach. Perhaps as a lesson in obedience or humility, the Jesuits instead had him learn cabinet making and welding.
It was hard to see the practicality of it. But the rough-hewn Wilmot eventually became a teacher, coaching basketball and football and serving as dean of students at Omaha Creighton Prep. “Looking back on it I’m glad that happened because I’ve used in my coaching and in my teaching those construction skills for many projects, and I’m still using them,” he says. “I’m still building and welding.”
Among other things, he integrates railroad spikes and other found metal in creating welded sculptures. A large cross he made adorns the grounds at St. James Catholic Church. His home-building mission came into focus when, during a mid-1990s sabbatical serving Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda, he helped construct a school and thus fulfilled a basic tenet of his Jesuit calling.
“In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that,” he says.
His small Gesu Housing Inc. nonprofit is the latest manifestation of putting his building know-how to work in service of his faith. Acting as a developer, Gesu (Italian for Jesus) builds affordable, energy efficient homes for the working poor in north Omaha. Now in his 70s, Wilmot walks with a hitch in his step after decades of jogging wore out his hips and necessitated replacement surgeries.
“The mission of Gesu housing is to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods,” says Wilmot.
Ten completed Gesu homes, all but one occupied, stand out from older homes on a two-block stretch of Burdette Street from 43rd to 42nd. He expects to start four new houses this fall. He says the well-built homes, which feature extra thick walls and insulation, get lots of play from interested buyers. Gesu has until now built concrete homes, but is embarking on wood frame construction to see which offers the most cost and energy efficiency.
Unlike many who serve social justice needs in north Omaha but live elsewhere, Wilmot lives in the Clifton Hills neighborhood where he works. He and four Jesuits reside at Mulumba House, a Creighton University satellite Jesuit community with a dedicated inner city presence.
“We felt this was the place we wanted to live,” says Wilmot. “We thought it would be a good idea to live with the people that we’re working for.”
Gesu partially funds its projects through the federal Housing and Urban Development monies through the Omaha City Planning Department. The three-bedroom homes cost $180,000 to construct and sell at well-below market rates to qualified first-time home buyers through Omaha100, a consortium of public-private partnerships dedicated to making home ownership possible for families with low to moderate income.
When Eva Powell and her three foster children took possession of their Gesu home August 20 it marked the gratifying end to a two-year process of searching and applying for a home.
“Oh, it was awesome. It was emotional,” says Powell, who works at International Gamco Inc. “It’s my own. It’s my house.”
She enjoys the two-car attached garage and a wrap-around porch and plentiful closet space among other features. She plans turning the unfinished basement into a rec room. Powell praises the way she was treated in the home qualification process, says of Omaha100 loan processor Carlene Lewis: “When I was getting frustrated she was always there to lift my spirits up and keep me going. She just really reassured me I would have a house. Without her I don’t know if I’d have hung in there this long.” The support Gesu provided also impressed her. “Once Brother Wilmot knew I was serious about wanting the corner lot, he told me, ‘Well, that’s your lot — just hang in there.’ He was great, too.”
Buyers like Powell receive a $60,000 subsidy loan that comes off the cost of the home, keeping fixed monthly payments at about $600.
Money from HUD and buyers doesn’t cover everything. For each home Gesu builds, Wilmot must raise $40,000 to cover the difference. Asking for money isn’t his favorite chore, but it is vital it Gesu is to continue its work.
“We couldn’t survive without it. It’s hard work but it’s very interesting and you meet a lot of really good people,” he says. “Many things in this country are completed because of fund raising — like education. There’s a gap between what it costs and what people pay for it, so you’ve got to raise the gap, and the same here ….”
He recently secured $250,000 in matching grant money to allow Gesu to finish its most recent crop of homes.
To find those stop-gap dollars and keep construction costs low, Wilmot enlists support from of his extended Prep family. For example, Dan Hall of Hallmarq Homes, the general contractor for Gesu projects, played ball for Wilmot at Prep. After one meeting with his old coach, Hall says, “I bought in. It’s a great thing we’re doing down here — we’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time. I love doing it.”
Replacing vacant lots with new homes encourages existing homeowners to spruce up their own places. “There are other houses on this block since we started doing this that have been rehabbed, which is a good idea. Other people are fixing up their houses,” Wilmot says.
Hall says residents get involved in the revitalization, even going out of their way to protect new construction sites. “Everybody seems to know me and my truck now because I’ve been down here hundreds of times,” he says. “And there are some folks that watch houses for me. It goes a long way, you know, in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it when you get people involved. If somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me.”
Whether it’s their place or someone else’s, he says, people “just want a nice house.” And a nice neighborhood.
Wilmot formed Gesu nearly a decade ago after working on a series of construction projects. They included additions to the then-Jesuit Middle School, now Jesuit Academy, at 2311 North 22nd Street, and to the Mulumba House at 4308 Grant. He was the school’s first assistant principal. But when he got involved building things using a fast, cost effective poured concrete process, he found inspiration for his new path.
“I worked closely with a friend of mine who’s another Prep alum, Phil McKeone of Daedalus Construction, and I said, ‘Phil, we’ve got to do something with this technology to build some houses, and he was dumb enough to go for it.”
Sister Marilyn Ross, director of Holy Name Housing Corp., urged him to start the home construction nonprofit. He did, and focused on the neighborhood where he lives. Gesu relies on donated and discounted labor and in-kind services.
Brother Wilmot in Uganda
Much of north central and northeast Omaha have a glut of vacant lots, condemned homes and unkempt rental properties that deflate property values of the area’s nice homes and solid neighborhoods. He says he once counted at least 25 vacant lots in the Clifton Hills section. With for-profit developers ignoring the district, nonprofits like Gesu and Holy Name fill the void for new home construction.
“I do know there’s not necessarily a lot of people breaking their necks to build houses down here,” says Wilmot. “I’m sure economics comes into it. All over this country I think we have to rebuild our cities from the inside out. We can’t just keep going out to 200th and plowing ground. There’s gotta be renewal and rebuilding.”
The inner city provides an attractive landscape for first-time home buyers with its affordable housing and proximity to Omaha’s cultural hub, parks and commercial corridors. He views the racially-ethnically diverse Clifton Hills community as a kind of test case for what urban living should be.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t want to move out to west Omaha,” he says. “They want to live close to downtown. There’s a lot of good neighborhoods here. We’re not just helping people get into houses but improving neighborhoods. It’s about people living together. The best neighborhoods are diverse — economically, culturally, ethnically. It’s whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians living together.”
Gesu uses lots where homes previously stood, filling vacant properties with single-family homes.
“We work with the city very closely,” says Wilmot. “They identify lots and they do some of the site work and stuff like that and then they give it to us.”
The land Gesu uses isn’t always ideal. Some lots are rough and hilly; others choked by overgrowth and refuse. He points to a lot just west of a newly completed Gesu house and says, “There was a house here that was torn down and instead of throwing the debris away they threw it in a hole and covered it up. Now we have to get rid of that junk and take down a lot of this overgrowth.”
“We have to deal with the land the way we get it, and it costs money to do all the cleanup and hauling.” And headaches come with construction. “It rains when you don’t want it to rain, it doesn’t rain when you want it to rain, all that stuff,” he says. “You’re at the mercy of the weather.”
Eventually, the hassles are worth it.
“When you get done closing that house and you tell someone like Eva (Powell), ‘Congratulations, you’re a homeowner,’ that’s a real key time, and a joyous time.”
With more resources, Gesu could expand its reach. “Right now this is the area we’re working in but we’re not locked in here,” he says. “But we are locked into north Omaha.”
Brother Mike Wilmot
Wilmot is by all accounts a mellower man than the owly disciplinarian who patrolled the sidelines and hallways at Prep, and who continues coaching part-time at Omaha Roncalli.
“Coaching is teaching,” he says.
He doesn’t do as much hands-on construction work as he did at the start, but he’s still every bit as committed to Gesu’ social justice mission.
“Everybody should have a decent place to live, but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Visit http://www.gesuhousing.com or call 402-991-0138
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Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time
Supremely talented photojournalist Don Doll, a Jesuit at Creighton University in Omaha, has been documenting the human condition around the world for five decades, shooting assignments for national magazines and for the Society of Jesus. He’s also a highly respected educator and benevolent mentor. The handful of times I have communicated with him over the years invariably finds him just returned from or prepping for his next jaunt to some faraway spot for his work. Now in his 70s, he has more than kept up with the technological revolution, he’s been on the leading edge of it in his own field, where he long ago went all digital and began practicing the much buzzed about convergence journalism that now routinely sees him file assignments in stills and video and for print, broadcast, and Web applications. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from a few years ago and is one of a few pieces I’ve done on him and his work that I’m posting on this blog.
Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When noted photojournalist Don Doll leaves Omaha on assignment, he generally goes to document the travails of poor indigenous peoples in some Third World nation and what his fellow Jesuits do to help alleviate their misery. The all-digital artist shoots both stills and video. Last spring the Creighton University journalism professor, named 2006 “Artist of the Year” (in Nebraska) by the Governor’s Arts Awards, reported on peasant conditions in Ecuador and Colombia with writer-photographer Brad Reynolds, whom he’s collaborated with for National Geographic stories.
Always the teacher, Doll will share his expertise in a Saturday Joslyn Art Museum class from 9 a.m to noon in conjunction with the Edward Weston exhibit. His work can currently be seen at: the Boone County Bank in Albion, Neb., where photos he shot along the historic Lewis & Clark trail are on display; and the Sioux City (Iowa) Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, where his Vision Quest, 76 images of men, women and sacred sites of the Sioux Nation, shows now through August. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Joslyn, among other museums.
Many of the images he’s filed in recent years chronicle the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which ministers to exiles around the world. Doll’s traveled to many JRS sites. He’s captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. He returned to Sri Lanka again last year to record the devastation of the tsunami and efforts by Jesuit Relief Service to aid families. He’s borne witness in Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and other remote locales. In 2005 he went to Uganda, where his words and photos revealed the “terrible” atrocities visited upon the Night Commuters of Gulu by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Doll estimates 15 million people are displaced from their homes by the war and the LRA. The human rights crisis there is but a small sample of a global problem.
“We don’t even know how many refugees there are in the world,” he said. “There’s probably 20 million internally displaced people and another 20 million who have been forced to leave their countries. I go to these terrible places in the world and try to tell the stories of people who have no other way to have their stories told.”
Making images of hard realities has “an effect” on him. “What does it do to you to photograph in these situations? I think it does something irreparable,” he said. “I mean, you carry those people inside all the time. It makes you aware of how poor people are and what awful things they go through.”
Even amid the horror of lost limbs and lives, hunger, torture, fear, there’s hope. He recalled an El Salvadorian woman who recounted how gunmen killed her daughter and four sons, yet declared, “‘I have to forgive them because I want God to forgive me.’ Well, the tears started coming down my eyes,” he said. “Here’s this poor, unlettered woman who lost five of her children in the El Salvador war and she’s saying, ‘I forgive them.’ Oh, my God, the insights the poor have.”
Balance for him comes in the form of the humanitarian work he sees Jesuits do.
“I try to tell what Jesuits are doing around the world in their work with the poorest of the poor. Not many people know this story of Jesuits in 50 different countries helping refugees. I’m so proud of being a Jesuit. I’m so impressed by these men,” said Doll, who celebrated 50 years as a Jesuit in 2005.
Two colleagues exemplify the order’s missionary work. One, Fr. Tony Wach, is the former rector at Omaha Creighton Prep. Wach aids refugees in Uganda, where he hopes to start a primary school and a secondary school and provide campus ministry for a nearby university. Doll tells his story in a new Jesuit Journeys magazine article titled “Fr. Tony’s Dream.” “He’s amazing,” Doll said.
The other priest, the late Fr. Jon Cortina, built the refugee town of Guarjila in El Salvador and began a program, Pro-Busqueda, to reunite war-displaced children with their families. Doll profiled his friend and ex-classmate on a “Nightline” special. Cortina educated many, even Archbishop Oscar Romero, to the plight of the poor. “Jon used to say, ‘We have the privilege of working with the poorest of the poor to help them.’ That’s what he loved about working up in Guarjila,” Doll said. “He loved those people and they loved him. He really lived the idea of liberation theology.”
Doll came to photography in the late 1950s-early 1960s as a young priest on the Rosebud (South Dakota) Sioux reservation, “where,” he said, “I discovered how to teach.” He said the experience of living and working with Native Americans, whom he made the subjects of two photo books, Crying for a Vision and Vision Quest, “changed my life. There’s something wonderful about being in another culture, being a minority and experiencing the values. It gives you a different perspective on your own culture because it enables you to see in a kind of bas relief your own cultural values and you can either recommit to them or reject them.”
The new values he’s assimilated give him a new understanding of family. “The whole kinship is a really beautiful thing about the Lakota people and how they hold one another in a very close relationship. That’s what you don’t see when you drive through ‘a rez,’ past a tar paper shack surrounded by cars that won’t run — you don’t see the powerful, beautiful relationships inside.”
Doll, who owns a tribal name given him by the Lakota Sioux, maintains ties with Native Americans, photographing an annual Red Cloud Indian School calendar featuring tribal children in traditional dress and mentoring students off ‘the rez’ at Creighton, where he’s proud of the school’s significant native population. He’s proud, too, of native students who’ve gone on to win major awards and jobs.
As much as he enjoys teaching, the pull of far away is always there. “I love to travel. My passion is to make pictures and to document visually what’s going on in the world,” he said. There are many places yet to visit. “I haven’t been to Russia, nor China, nor Australia, but I’ll get there.” His rich Jesuit journey continues.
Check out Doll’s work on his website magis.creighton.edu.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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