Tag Archives: Crystal Brown

Building Back: Habitat for Humanity hammers home safety, prepares for post-pandemic work.

Serina Gaston on a recently built porch in Allison Hill.

They are building their way back.

After a year of silenced backhoes, Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area has a new executive director and a retooled commitment to home renovation.

As part of a global network that spans 70 countries and all 50 states, the nonprofit has become known for teams of volunteers in T-shirts and tool belts framing new houses, scaling scaffolding and raising walls in massive speed-builds. But here at home in Harrisburg, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a lengthy construction shutdown and a shift in focus to home repairs.

Habitat hopes new home construction, paused in 2020 and 2021, will resume in 2022, according to Executive Director Serina Gaston, who assumed the reins in April.

This year, Habitat has bolstered its critical home repair program, improving existing homes with ongoing maintenance issues: leaky roofs, windows and doors; decaying porches and wobbly railings; broken bathrooms and dilapidated kitchens. Many of their jobs involve installing ramps and adding handrails to steps and showers.

Gaston noted that, every year, one in three adults over the age of 65 falls, often causing injury and even death. Their “Safe at Home” program repairs homes for seniors and adults with disabilities, with accessibility and safety as a focus.

Much of Habitat’s funding comes from individual donations, grants, and Managed Care Organizations such as Gateway Health Plan, which recently donated $60,000, earmarked for the homebound, those with disabilities and seniors.

In addition to home-building and repair, Habitat hosts a quarterly financial literacy workshop, and, of course, operates the Habitat ReStore, a used goods store that accepts small and large donations of new or gently used furniture, housewares, appliances, building materials and more.


Health Equity

A desire to make a home safer and healthier is built into Gaston’s DNA. She said that health care has been her lifelong passion, and safe, stable shelter is one of the foundations of good health.

“I have a heart for helping people,” she said.

That emphasis on food insecurity and healthier living began in her childhood in Elkins Park in Montgomery County. She has lived in central Pennsylvania for 24 years, after moving here to join her husband, a Steelton native. They met when they both were students at West Chester University.

Before coming to Habitat, Gaston worked as executive director of the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Network, where she educated low- to moderate-income families about the building blocks to health—the importance of eating a balanced diet and the dangers of obesity and diabetes.

She also helped create the Pennsylvania VeggieBook app and focused on improving the social determinants of health. In addition, she worked at the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers and the state Department of Health and currently serves on the Pennsylvania United Way board, the state’s Office of Health Equity Advisory Committee and the Pennsylvania Chapter’s Society of Public Health Educators.

“My passion is health equity, and I believe that having a safe and decent place to live impacts your health,” Gaston said. “When we look at the social determinants of health, we can’t overlook having a safe place to live.”


Making Inroads

In the critical home repair program, the nonprofit partners with homeowners for internal and external renovations and repairs.

To qualify, applicants must be up-to-date on their property taxes and mortgage and have an income below 80 percent of the Dauphin County median family income.

For a family of four, that means income must fall below $67,900 or $54,350 for a two-person household.

If a resident qualifies, a construction team will go out and look at the project. Acting as both construction manager and coordinator, they will take pictures, talk to the homeowner and tap volunteers. If it’s a bigger job, like a roof, they may contract out the work, Gaston said.

There is no cost to the homeowner if they qualify.

“That is part of our mission,” Gaston said. “We want everyone to be able to live in a safe environment.”

The Etzweiler family was one beneficiary of the Critical Home Repair Program. They recently wrote to Gaston and her team:

“Thank you for the difference you have made. Through your help, we are getting closer to our goal of putting siding on our home, which will boost our confidence and self-esteem! Thank you for the windows you replaced, the bathroom floor and ceiling fan, the newer stove and hood with fan, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and all the electrical work that was done to improve our home situation. “

Whether in Harrisburg or Halifax, tough economic times have darkened the doorsteps of both rural and urban America, Gaston said.

They are making inroads. From 2006 to 2021, the nonprofit has completed 199 home repair projects and counting, prioritizing safety, energy-efficiency and code compliance.

Crystal Brown, a former board member of the nonprofit Tri-County Housing Development Corp. and once head of the Brethren Housing Association, applauds Gaston and the work of Habitat. Tri-County partnered with Habitat to do a three-house building blitz in 2018 along Swatara Street.

She also lauded Gaston for her commitment to housing equity, safety and fairness.

“She is a phenomenal woman and leader,” Brown said.

For more information about Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area, visit www.harrisburghabitat.org or call 717-545-7299.

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She Builds: A social champion is in the house.

Crystal Brown

“I remember standing on the corner watching my house burn in my ‘New Kids on the Block’ nightie.”

That memory is one of Crystal Brown’s earliest and most formative ones, as a 5-year-old living in Ohio, forced to face a hate crime sparked by her parents’ interracial marriage.

“We were very fortunate that we were able to stay with family until my parents were able to find another home,” Brown recalled. “Actually, a person from the community let us stay with them since all of our family was in Pennsylvania.”

Thus, Brown understood from a young age that having a support system is important to maintaining stability.

“If it would not have been for family and those kind neighbors, we would have been homeless,” she said. “That is why I believe in the work we do at BHA.”

BHA stands for Brethren Housing Association, a nonprofit, interdenominational organization that owns more than 10 properties in South Allison Hill, serving about 85 adults and children a year. Their red-doored headquarters is situated in the shadow of the Capitol, on Hummel Street, across from the Mulberry Street Bridge.

Named executive director in 2011, Brown helps Harrisburg residents obtain housing and the skills they need to keep that housing. BHA is probably best known for its “Transitions” program, in which women with children who are homeless are given transitional housing. Families live in BHA-owned housing, obtaining their own apartment without being forced to share common spaces. BHA also works to secure permanent housing for people with disabilities and offers an aftercare program for families once served by their programs.

Brown said she and her staff give clients both “encouragement and accountability.” Many came to BHA from an emergency shelter or were couch-surfing, she explained, “doubling up” with another family temporarily.

The reasons for homelessness vary, she said.

“Every family is different, but there is usually the need to supplement their income,” she said.

Most are in need of a job, an education, and, often, basic money management skills.

“They need skills to keep their apartment neat, pay their bills on time, live successfully with their neighbors,” she said.


Love and Support

A 2004 graduate of Susquehanna Township High School, Brown began volunteering at the Interfaith Shelter, which operates under the auspices of Catholic Charities in Lower Paxton Township, while earning a degree in social work from West Chester University. The Shelter offered her a job soon after, and she went on to earn a master’s degree from Temple-Harrisburg.

The desire to serve families in need is in her genes. Her father, the Rev. Wayne Baxter, served a congregation in Edgemont, and her grandfather also was a minister.

Brown said that, unlike the Interfaith Shelter, where families usually stay only 30 days, her goal is about permanence, opportunity and access. Families can stay as long as two years. With more time, she can better help clients acquire the skills they need and connect them with more resources for long-term stability.

“I feel like housing is a right,” she said. “People deserve to have a roof over their head.”

That sentiment is reflected in many of the plaques bearing motivational quotes in her busy first-floor office, which straddles a large open meeting room where clients gather. One of them reads: “You have to be taught to be second class. You’re not born that way.”

She notes that homelessness is part of a larger problem. Low-cost housing leads to housing segregation, which leads to educational segregation—which “leads to a perfect storm, and our families live with the aftermath,” she said. She pointed out that rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Dauphin County costs about $886.

“I can’t change federal policies, but I can give love and support and encouragement,” she said.


Tag Out

Brown sees a lack of affordable housing as a serious problem in every American city, but especially Harrisburg.

So many restrictions are often imposed upon prospective tenants, such as criminal background checks and credit checks. The homeless with criminal records often can’t get housing, which leads to not just homelessness, but hopelessness. Many have paid their debt to society, but cannot break out of homelessness because of their past.

“People make mistakes,” Brown said matter-of-factly.

Although memories of her childhood house fire remain, other, more recent memories lift her spirits. She recalls a single mother, frazzled after dealing with a boisterous 3-year-old all day, with no one around to give her a break. Brown came home with the mom and calmed the child by singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” That child is now 6 and doing well in school.

“I got to be that tag out” for that mom, Brown said.

The community is a vital partner in BHA’s efforts. One of their most popular programs is “Adopt an Apartment.” Caring donors can buy pots, pans, lamps and more for a family moving into a new apartment. She said UPMC Pinnacle and its employees are frequent sponsors.

She is often asked if she ever feels afraid, working where she does. She replies that she is no more scared than she would be in a parking lot at Wal-Mart or camping.

And, while she may have little experience camping or living in a rustic environment, she clearly knows what she is doing in an urban setting.

“I have a healthy level of fear,” she said.


Such Transformation

One of Brown’s mentors is Lisa Peck, program director at Interfaith Shelter. Peck returns the respect.

“Crystal is very open, very honest, and she very much believes in her work,” Peck said.

Peck and Brown often brainstorm about how they can make things better for others.

“She is very, very dynamic,” Peck said. “She does everything with enthusiasm and nothing is too small to take on. She is always up to challenges and will stop at nothing to help the less fortunate.”

When families arrive, Brown is “always warm and welcoming,” Peck said.

“I really enjoy working with the women,” Brown said. “Every day, I learn and grow. It continues to humble me. It is a constant reminder to not pass judgement.”

Still, amidst the triumphs are tragedies. One of BHA’s most ardent supporters, Ray Diener, was brutally murdered several years ago, and one of the rehabbed houses on Hummel Street was named in his honor.

That experience forces a reflection on another plaque on her wall: “Pray about everything. Worry about nothing.”

“We are here to serve—to love God and love our neighbor,” Brown said.

One of Brown’s greatest sources of pride is that they are a “trauma-informed organization.”

Many homeless people are victims of physical and sexual abuse, she explained, and that trauma hinders their growth and stability. Homelessness then becomes an additional trauma. BHA partners with Pressley Ridge to offer counseling.

“Instead of asking, ‘Why did you spend that $100 on that?’ we try to understand their story and put it in context,” she said.

BHA also works with Dauphin County’s Office of Children and Youth, since many of the children in the child welfare system are there due to homelessness.

In the mid-winter cold, Brown gave a short tour of snow-topped Hummel Street. The townhouses across the street from her office are new construction. BHA demolished old buildings and built new with the help of UPMC Pinnacle. A playground, pavilion and garden are also part of the tidy block. A state grant helped with streetscaping.

“There is such transformation on this block,” she said.

The growth in their properties is among the accomplishments she is most proud of.

She lists many other housing construction and renovation projects going up around her, including 50 affordable housing units slated for 13th and Mulberry and Crescent and Mulberry, in conjunction with the Harrisburg Housing Authority.

Her end goal is more housing, less hate.

“We just need to be nice to each other and share in our abundance,” she said.

The mean-spiritedness she witnesses is rooted in fear, she believes. People are afraid that, if someone else gets an opportunity, it subtracts opportunity from them.

But she knows it is not a zero-sum game.

She pointed to her favorite quote on her wall, uttered by Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And so she builds.


Brethren Housing Association is located at 219 Hummel St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-233-6016 or visit www.bha-pa.org.


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