Jacqueline Otey takes in the sun from the front porch of her Habitat home in Atlanta. A Habitat program also brightened her business prospects. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

How Atlanta Habitat for Humanity manages to build more than homes

Since its founding in 1983, Atlanta Habitat for Humanity has helped some 1,600 families build their own home, guiding them from foundation to roof, through interior finishes and fixtures.

That alone is more than enough to change the trajectory of any family’s life. But imagine for a moment providing the resources they might need to start or build their own business, making it possible not only for them to maintain their new lives but, well, build on them.

To this day, the very notion gives Jacqueline Otey goose pimples.

Last year, it happened to her.

Atlanta Habitat for Humanity has helped Jacqueline Otey get her own home and later to expand her business. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Her good fortune, she said, started one Saturday 14 years ago as she was finishing work on a Habitat home her brother Richard was building in Thomasville.

“I was chatting with the president and she asked if I were a homeowner,” Otey said one morning recently.

She wasn’t. Otey was living with her two sons and an older brother in an apartment but looking to buy a home. For months, she’d been helping Richard, but it had never occurred to her that she’d qualify for a Habitat home, too. A bariatric patient navigator at Emory-Decatur Hospital, she assumed her income was too high.

She discovered, however, all that was required was that she have at least two years of steady employment, $700 in savings, a decent credit score and be willing to put in 500 sweat equity hours helping someone else. Nope, the work she’d done on her brother’s home didn’t count.

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Otey would soon sign up for the program, and 12 years ago, she moved into a four-bedroom, two-bath wood-frame home on a quiet street in southeast Atlanta, a skip and a hop from downtown.

Granted it isn’t in an upscale community, where crime is low and boarded-up properties don’t exist. No, in Lakewood Commons, the opposite is true. And though it is burdened by dilapidated homes and high crime rates, Otey is convinced she’s “sitting in the middle of something great that is about to happen.”

Thanks to an attentive neighbor, that has certainly proved true for her.

The neighbor, Otey said, forwarded to her an article about Habitat’s newest effort: Vision. Goals. Action!

By then, Otey had already built a name for herself as the unofficial mayor of Lakewood Commons, but she stood out for something else — a line of skin care products she created in her kitchen years earlier when her younger son Todd suffered from eczema.

For years, she’d tried prescription medications and over-the-counter lotions and creams and nothing worked. Otey started experimenting with shea and cocoa butter until finally she had a cure for Todd’s itchy skin — Butter Me Up by JRena.

Jacqueline Otey with her 21-year-old son, Todd Dobbs II, the inspiration for her Butter Me Up skin care products. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed

She started sharing the product with friends and family, and before long, they were requesting refills. When they started offering to pay for the product, it hit her. Maybe her butter could become her bread and butter.

That was in 2017. Otey was still making jars of body butter and selling them from her kitchen when her neighbor shared the email inviting entrepreneurs and wannabe business owners to compete for Habitat funds they could use to start a new venture or build on one they already had “Shark Tank” style.

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Since the VGA entrepreneur competition launched in 2017, five homeowners have pitched their business. Otey, one of three finalists selected by a panel of judges, won last year’s fall competition.

“I was excited,” she said. “They handed me a $2,500 check and a glass trophy.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

According to Lisa Y. Gordon, president and CEO of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, Vision. Goals. Action! was made possible by a $40,000 gift received in 2016 from local donors.

“We wanted to impact homeowners beyond the build,” Gordon said.

In addition to helping homeowners grow or start their business, Habitat also awards education scholarships for homeowners and their family members.

To date, Atlanta Habitat has awarded more than $30,000 in scholarships and five business grants totaling $9,250.

“We’ve had some great success stories,” Gordon said.

Otey used her grant to buy bulk items for her business. Instead of 10 pounds of shea butter, she could buy 100 pounds. Instead of the usual 40 jars, she got 500. She was also able to purchase a new mixer, mixing bowls and labels.

Business, she said, is doing surprisingly well.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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