Business, Econ Students’ Projects Benefit Habitat for Humanity

| April 29, 2008

This spring, Sweet Briar’s business management and economics students completed projects to benefit the Amherst County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity.

While the business management lab students organized several events in support of Amherst County Habitat – logging more than 1,600 volunteer hours and raising more than $1,500 – economics students researched the social and economic impact of the local affiliate.

Along the way, the students gained real-world experience.

In the business management lab, each group of three or four students, supervised by a teaching assistant, was responsible for planning, marketing and public relations, human resources, conflict resolution and donations and accounting.

“This semester, the students in the management laboratory, led by [class CEO] Ruthanne Ratliff and the other business practicum students who served as the ‘executive suite,’ did a really outstanding job,” Tom Loftus, assistant professor of business, said.

“The five events they planned and implemented were not only great educational and fundraising events for our Amherst County Habitat for Humanity, but they were all great social events for the entire campus community.”

In addition to the third-annual Battle of the Bands held March 21, there were some new events this year. The lab hosted a Valentine’s Day carnation sale and penny jars fundraiser in February, a talent show and carnival in March and “Seersucker and Sundresses,” a wine-and-cheese party, on April 25.

On Wednesday, April 23, the lab students made their final presentations to faculty, students and other members of the Sweet Briar community. Held at the Boathouse, the event was followed by the second business management “company picnic.”

In opening the program, Ratliff, a senior at Sweet Briar, thanked Craig Cassell, executive director of Amherst County Habitat, for his support. “Craig showed up to all of the events answered questions, etcetera,” she said. “It makes it easier to do our job to raise money and support for Habitat when we have such great support coming back at us.”

The feeling was mutual. “I wanted to say everyone in the class should be proud of what they’ve done,” Cassell said, following the presentations. “I’d like to demand that you are proud of your accomplishments. Your support is invaluable to the Habitat affiliate.”

Gene Gotwalt, chair of the business and economics department, also praised the students, and said no complaints had filtered his way, other than hearing, “What do you mean we’re only getting one credit for this class?” from some of the lab students.

“What you’ve done for your sisters at this college, providing them with things to do,” he said. “You did a remarkable job and from what I can tell – correct me if I’m wrong – [lab professor Tom] Loftus had very little to do with it. All he does is stand back and get out of your way. It’s all your doing. … You should all be right proud of yourselves.”

Loftus gave kudos to the Sweet Briar staff members who helped out as guest speakers and in other capacities. “One key to the success of the management lab as a learning experience is the opportunity it gives our business students to work professionally with the staff of the College,” he said.

“Working with students takes a lot of extra time on their part, and particularly so this semester when the projects were bigger and … there also were events we had never attempted before.”

Before she started working on a project to assess the economic and social impact of the Amherst affiliate, econ student Sarah Hall ’09 never imagined the need for such organizations was so great.

“For me, I certainly became more aware of our community’s needs,” she said. “The numbers don’t lie, and there is certainly a desperate call for organizations like Habitat for Humanity in the Amherst community.

“I could never have imagined the level at which such philanthropic organizations are needed. After being a part of this project, I truly feel as if my work has contributed to something greater than myself. In addition, I feel as though I have developed skills that will allow me to put what I study into meaningful practice.”

Over the past three semesters, a small group of economics students – Hall, Allison Hancock ’08 and Natalie Batman ’08 – spent countless hours creating surveys; plowing through census, tax and local records; studying federal government regulatory manuals; conducting phone interviews; and compiling the results of their research into a formal report.

According to Mellody Gotwalt, visiting instructor of economics and faculty advisor for the project, Cassell, had approached the College’s business and economics department chair “seeking assistance in providing an economic impact study of their services in Amherst County.”

At the same time, Gotwalt was in the process of developing a program in which students would conduct independent research for rural community service groups. “The serendipity and timing were perfect,” she said.

On April 23, the students presented their findings and a 24-page report to Cassell.

According to the report, more than 10 percent of Amherst County’s population “lives at or below the poverty line,” with apartment or house rental consuming more than 60 percent of their income.

Hall’s work focused on these numbers. “I worked on putting together the data that identified the need for Habitat in our community,” she said. “I looked at current rent rates and their affordability, current income levels, current demographics, and worked on predicting the number of people Amherst would have in poverty and in need of more affordable housing within the coming decade.”

Since 1991, ACHH has built or refurbished 25 houses. The students discovered that these homes account for $22,000 in annual tax revenues, which will increase by $897 with each new Habitat house.

“The desirability of the area for new business investors has also improved due to increased available housing values,” the report states. “For the 25 properties … the Amherst area gained approximately $680,147 in equity value.”

The students also reported that because Habitat homeowners are not paying conventional mortgages or rent, they save thousands of dollars each year. That money is available for daily expenses and/or education and retirement.

Hancock and Batman, who is a resident of Amherst, studied these types of benefits. “I learned a great deal about the needs and challenges facing low income families in our community,” Batman said, “as well as the tremendous impact Habitat makes [on] individuals and the community as a whole.”

As for Cassell, he calls the work Sweet Briar has done to benefit Habitat – both the econ students and those in the business management lab – “invaluable.” The econ students’ research has already been used in grant writing, he said, and it will continue to be helpful in their day-to-day operations.

“Running a Habitat carries with it a lot of work in multiple directions, all worth one-hundred percent of your time,” he said. “When quality help opens its doors to assist, it’s again such a blessing. … Our affiliate values our partnership with [Sweet Briar College] so much. Our partnership has contributed greatly to Amherst County Habitat’s success.”

— Suzanne Ramsey

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