New Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Vancouver Island North Pat McKenna stops in at the organization's next build location in Campbell River. The site at the corner of Westgate and Dalton Roads should see construction begin next spring.

Habitat head embraces new role

Incoming director of North Island Habitat for Humanity makes transition from retail to community service

It was a long road to our region for the newest member of the Habitat for Humanity Vancouver Island North team, but he’s settling in nicely.

Hailing from Antigonish, N.S., by way of Edmonton, Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver, and everywhere in between, Pat McKenna is two months in with Habitat, “and it’s been fun so far. I’m really enjoying myself,” he says.

After spending most of his working life in retail, managing both Home Depot and Target stores all across Canada, McKenna has moved on to a more community-building, socioeconomic-improvement position, and he couldn’t be happier about it.

“I think when I got to (the area) I realized that giving back to the community was really important to me,” he says. “When I lived in some of the bigger cities I’ve been to, I didn’t really feel as much a part of the community I was in. When I got here I realized it was more like the community I grew up in.”

He quickly became a Rotarian, got involved with the local theatre community – he’s currently the president of Rainbow Youth Theatre in the Comox Valley – and joined numerous boards and volunteer organizations, trying to do his part to make the community as good as it could be using the skills he has.

One of those skills, practiced for years in retail megastores, is managing groups of people all needing to perform different tasks for a larger collective purpose, which will come in handy in his new role.

One of the challenges for McKenna, however, is moving from managing paid employees to managing volunteers.

“It’s a whole different animal,” he says. In some ways it’s easier to manage volunteers, because they’re all in it for the love of it and their belief in what’s being done. In other ways it’s easier to manage paid employees, because, well, they’ve got financial incentive to do the job well.

“You can’t exactly give a volunteer a raise,” he says with a smile, “but in some ways, that’s better, because they are motivated by something else. Everyone who volunteers for anything, not just with us, is obviously passionate about whatever it is they’re doing. Why would you volunteer of something you don’t believe in, right?”

In Campbell River, Habitat North Island just completed their build on Hilchey Road and immediately began planning their next one – on land donated by the CIty at the corner of Westgate and Dalton Roads in Willow Point.

They haven’t began taking applications from families for the next build – which will be a triplex – but he says they’ll begin looking for applicants this fall once the selection committee has been formed.

“We’re looking for families who are working really hard, but just can’t manage to get ahead because they’re paying X amount per month for rent,” he says, who fall into a pre-determined income bracket.

So what’s the end game for McKenna? What is it that he thinks he can accomplish with Habitat for Humanity Vancouver Island North?

“I have a personal mission (for my role with Habitat), but it’s not clearly defined,” He laughs.

“The first thing we need to do is ramp up capacity. We have a glorious opportunity here, with the Campbell River ReStore being very well attended and very well supported by the community. That gives us the equity to build the houses. Now we need the actual ability to build those houses.”

Traditionally, he says, they build almost exclusively using volunteers. He envisions a model where the same number of volunteer hours will be used, but with the addition of some trained tradespeople.

“We need to look at ways to build houses faster,” he says, because the demand for affordable housing for families is ever-increasing, so he’s willing – and considers it an integral part of his job – to consider and develop strategies to do that.

“I’m big on process,” he says. “When you have processes that work, you just need to plug good people into it and it’ll go faster. And Habitat’s process is sound,” he says. The goal now is to integrate the best people they can into those processes.

The other main hurdle to clear is land acquisition.

“The City of Campbell River has been great,” he said. “We’re really excited about our relationship with Campbell River. We want to build where there’s land available, and there’s land available here, and the City recognizes the tremendous benefit Habitat brings to the community and they want to support us however they can,” he says, which is why they donated the property at Westgate and Dalton. He’s hoping – but not expecting S– more arrangements like that one can be reached, because the biggest barrier to being able to build isn’t the “how,” but the “where.”

Overall, though, he says that rather than having end goals, it’s better to look to constantly improve at what you’re doing.

Because that’s all anyone should ask of themselves, and that’s when you’ll see results.

“The goal next year is to get tighter,” he says, however he can help make that happen. “Two years from now: tighter, faster, more. Five years from now: tight, fast, lots.”

For more information on Habitat for Humanity Vancouver Island North, visit habitatnorthisland.com or contact McKenna directly at pat@habitatnorthisland.com