For all its problems, the town of Dobbins Heights pulled Edward Tender home.
Fewer than 900 souls live in the community, which was incorporated in 1984 and bumps up against Hamlet in Richmond County. Tender was born there in 1962, and when he graduated from Hamlet High School he joined the Army, served in Vietnam and spent three years in Europe.
On a recent Saturday he directed a handful of volunteers who were putting interior touches on a Habitat for Humanity home that will draw a new, young family to Dobbins Heights—a haven from the family’s stormy past, built on a sturdy concrete block foundation and facing out, confidently, on a corner lot.
The family is also welcomed by a proud, tight community eager to attract new residents.
“It’s not a handout but a step up,” Tender says. “This is a great way to revitalize Dobbins Heights. We have people willing to move to Dobbins Heights and pay a note back with a no-interest loan if we can get the funding.
“New houses will prompt the revitalizing of old houses,” Tender believes.
Revitalization was the first thing that Habitat for Humanity of the NC Sandhills did for Dobbins Heights.
“This is a very close community,” says Amie Fraley, Sandhills Habitat director. When she made a presentation for Habitat at a town council meeting, “We were just embraced by the community.”
Knowing that the house would not be built immediately, Fraley asked about repair work on existing homes. There was plenty to do; one house they worked on was occupied by a 95-year-old World War II veteran and his wife.
New homes, new hope
Rehabs and new construction could transform Dobbins Heights. Within a quick walk of the Habitat home are decaying houses, trailers and a burned-out home that appears to have been sitting that way for years. Tender cites the economic statistics of his hometown: “Seventy-five percent of our people are on disability or Supplemental Security Income; 30 percent of our young people are unemployed. It’s not only a Dobbins Heights problem; it’s a county problem.”
Once sustained by jobs in mills and by the railroad, many in Richmond County now can find only service-type jobs such as nursing assistant.
Dr. Carlotta Griffin-Knotts, Dobbins Heights community spirit is “a very big plus.”
Griffin-Knotts, director of student retention and interventions at Richmond Community College in Hamlet, says that core group that meets at the town’s Community Center shares her belief that the town, and so many others like it, needs job training for its people.
“We do have educational opportunities here,” she says. But too many people are unaware of what’s available and remain “mired in poverty and a lack of hope.”
She calls for a “sustained effort to let folks know that there is that opportunity, that chance. You can live and you can live well in Richmond County, and you can get your start in Dobbins Heights.
“We need to keep our young people busy. If not, they do other things to the detriment of the community.”
Tender sees great hope in Habitat’s interest in the town. There’s plenty of land available, and some owners might donate it or sell it at a low price. And that’s the catalyst for his vision for his hometown.
“My dream is that it becomes a semi-retirement area, and also for working families. My dream is to see it rebuilt.
“If Habitat moves in working people, it will help Dobbins Heights with its tax base. And seeing a Habitat house go up, it might make others step up” and repair their own homes.
Citizen activists are passionate
Terry Gaar sees the town’s activist citizens as a boon.
“We like to raise the excitement level of the community, and make it a desirable place to live,” says Gaar, operations director for Sandhills Habitat.
“When you just drive through, you see the burned-out houses and lack of care, and it pushes people away. But if you go back in, on a street like Rose Lane, you see an entirely different community. People who just drive through don’t see that part.”
It’s that spirit that Gaar hopes Habitat can spread all over town.
“People stand around the house” as construction on the three-bedroom, two-bath home, which began Oct. 24 of last year, continues. “It’s not dangerous, they’re just curious. We’ve had no trouble at the site. We’ve asked neighbors to watch over the house, and they have. They’ve taken responsibility for it, and that tells you a lot about the community.
“If we had the money and ability we’d go to the town and say we want every property on Earl Franklin Road brought up to code. Our dream would be to assess every house for need, then go to the homeowner and say, ‘Here’s the plan.’”
‘Make the town look better’
“It’s a blessing,” says Angeline David, a Dobbins Heights City Council member whose area of expertise is parks and recreation.
“It seems like it’s an easy process; you’ve just got to want it and do it how they do it. I see a need for a lot more; we have houses that have been abandoned, and if they were moved out of the way and new house was built it would really make the town look better. I know it’s a process, but there’s nothing wrong with me praying and hoping.”
When Habitat first proposed the house, “We didn’t have a group” to support the build, David says. But, thanks to Tender and others, “We got a group.”
“People here in town do want to get involved; you have to stay up with this stuff, gotta follow up on the process.”
For Terry Gaar, Dobbins Heights’ warmth and pride are the town’s best asset.
She recalls driving through the town shortly after Habitat began work on the house that’s now nearing completion.
“I passed Mrs. Bonds’ house, and my phone rang and she asked why I hadn’t stopped to say hello.”
When they were rehabbing Mr. Maxey’s home, the World War II veteran, neighbors came out, stopped by to look and ask questions and express their appreciation that someone cared about their community.
“These are the best people,” Gaar says.
For Mayor Antonio Blue, it’s one step at a time.
“This brings another family, and it shows that Dobbins Heights is a place you will want to move to, build in and revitalize. As mayor, it made me feel real good to see this go from infancy to where it is now. This family will have a safe environment and a nice home to live in.
“It takes a village to make this thing work.”
By Bill DuPre
Habitat North Carolina