Check it out
What: The Jay Gerber Young Community Leader Award reception
When: Friday, April 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Where: OddFellows Hall, 415 Second St.
Why: To honor this year’s recipient, Davis Community Church Associate Pastor Bill Habicht
Cost: Hosted by the Sunrise Rotary Club of Davis, which is sponsoring the award, the reception is open to the public for a $15 donation. There will be appetizers and a no-host bar. Space is limited, though. RSVP to Dennis Lindsay at [email protected] by April 7.
Bill Habicht knew he was meant for a life of service as early as his high school years in Maryland.
But it was during college, at the University of Tennessee, when he took a position as student manager of a halfway house for former criminal offenders, that he learned his true calling.
Helping these residents prep for job interviews and everything else they needed to re-enter society, and seeing how for so many, one single mistake had so completely changed the trajectory of their lives, “got me really interested in social justice,” Habicht said.
“That’s when the internal call came.”
It’s a call that has since led to a life’s work of service in faith and social justice — a resume that includes everything from serving as a chaplain with the New Orleans Police Department to managing a residential facility for AIDS patients in Virginia and much more.
Since 2005, he has been in Davis, serving the congregation of the Davis Community Church as associate pastor, as well as the much broader community beyond. Among his accomplishments since his arrival here: the creation of the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter, the Youth Leadership Institute, Radiate Art and the future MOSAIC Tea and Coffee House.
And for all of that work, Habicht has been named the very first recipient of the Jay Gerber Young Community Leader Award. He will be honored at a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 11, at the Odd Fellows Hall in Davis hosted by the Sunrise Rotary Club of Davis.
Jay Gerber was himself the sort of leader that Habicht models himself on.
Gerber, who died in April 2013, “embodied everything Davis Community Church is,” said Habicht. “He always served, always quietly, always humbly. He was a model for me.”
Gerber was known for an infectious smile and extraordinary community involvement. He coached Davis Little League, served as president of both the Davis Rotary Club and Davis Chamber of Commerce, and held many positions on city and county commissions. He was known as someone who could bring the community together to find solutions to problems benefitting everyone.
In the wake of his death, city leaders came together themselves to establish an award in Gerber’s name that would recognize and honor a young community leader — under the age of 40 — who demonstrates the sort of enthusiasm, positive attitude and community service that Gerber was known for.
Being selected as the first recipient, Habicht said Wednesday, “is an honor.”
And one he didn’t expect: Habicht had actually nominated someone else for the award.
He, in turn, was nominated by a number of community leaders, including former DCC pastor Mary Lynn Tobin; Davis School Board Trustee Sheila Allen; Davis City Council member Lucas Frerichs; Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor; and community leaders Michael Bisch, Robb Davis, Mary Anne Kirsch and Kemble Pope.
Their reasons for nominating Habicht were many:
* His leadership in envisioning and organizing the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter.
Now in its seventh year, the shelter engages more than 1,300 volunteers from 40 organizations as well as providing leadership and community service experience to high school and college students, all while providing cold-weather shelter to the city’s homeless.
“Most importantly,” Habicht’s nominators said, “the shelter operates in such a way as to create relationships of equality and respect between volunteers and shelter guests. Those living homeless who seek out shelter are treated with dignity and volunteers come to know them as individuals with very human stories. In the process, volunteers’ lives are changed every bit as much as much as the guests’, and walls of hostility that can form between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in our community are eroded.”
* When parents Habicht met in parks and playgrounds expressed a common need for a low-cost option for indoor creative play for young children, he pulled them together to organize “Davis Arts Play,” which provided a once a month opportunity for up to 40 young children and their parents in the community to play with art media in a safe and supervised setting.
* When concerns were expressed by some downtown merchants about homeless people on the streets, Habicht started attending the brown-bag lunches of the Davis Downtown Business Association — initially to address those concerns. But soon he expanded his participation by exploring other issues business owners face, their vision for the downtown and the barriers to those visions becoming reality. He even offered to build a website for the DDBA for free.
* Out of those conversations with DDBA members, who expressed their hopes for more venues for arts in downtown Davis, Habicht helped form Radiate Art, an artists’ collective.
* During the 2012 City Council election, he organized a Forum on Community Values and invited the candidates to an open and public conversation where they were asked to share the values they believed should define the decisions they would make on the council.
* He volunteers as webmaster for the Yolo County Visitors Bureau.
* He organized a group of community members to form MOSAIC Tea and Coffee House, which when opened, will provide job training and a supportive community for adults with disabilities as well as serve as a venue for art, music and theater for downtown Davis.
* He created the Youth Leadership Institute of Davis, a program for high school students seeking to make an impact on their community. Hosted by the Davis Community Church, the majority of participants are from the wider community. During the school year, students gain skills and understanding about community challenges such as homelessness, poverty, mental illness and addiction in preparation for internships with the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter.
Of all of his accomplishments during his nine years in Davis, Habicht points to the shelter as the one of which he is most proud.
The need to provide shelter to the homeless here was one of the first things Habicht noticed when he arrived in Davis.
The church had charged him with identifying the unmet social needs in Davis and doing what he could to meet them. He noticed almost immediately that there were only two beds available to the homeless in Davis at the time, both through Davis Community Meals.
Back in Richmond, Va., there had been a huge shelter operation and Habicht put out the call in Davis to see what could be started here.
What started seven years ago involved nine congregations. Within a few years, 40 organizations were involved in operating the rotating shelter, and Habicht has since turned over the reins to other volunteers to keep it going.
Habicht says that while he’s personally received much credit for the rotating shelter, “it was a group effort. I was just the public face.”
He credits people like Kirsch, who is still involved, as well as Natasha Foo Kune, Willa Pettygrove and others.
It took a year and half of planning, Habicht said, “before we took the plunge. And it didn’t go smoothly, but it went. It was completely volunteer and still is.”
He is most proud of the fact that the shelter “is breaking down barriers,” Habicht said. “The key was the dinners — volunteers eating with the homeless had the most important impact on the culture of the community.”
Breaking down those barriers has been at the heart of Habicht’s work for many years.
Following his graduation from Tennessee with a degree in sociology, Habicht spent a year in Ghana, in West Africa, learning the local language of Dagbani and farming with the villagers.
“It was out in the middle of nowhere,” he recalled.
But he gained the skills necessary to cross cultural barriers, skills he brought back to the United States with him. He returned to attend the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., where he met his future wife, Amy. They married in 2002 and have two children, Asher, 6, and Amelie, 3.
Internships followed with the New Orleans Police Department, where he did ride-alongs with officers and often consoled grieving families. Later still was another year-long internship in Fort Worth, Texas.
But he realized during that time that he “needed more tools.”
Seminary school was more theoretical, Habicht noted, and to do the work he wanted to do, he needed practical skills. So he returned to school, to Virginia Commonwealth University, to obtain his masters in social work.
More internships followed, including one working with the homeless in Richmond, another as night manager at a residential facility for AIDS patients.
Eventually he would land the job of associate pastor with Davis Community Church, a place well suited for his life’s work, given his progressive outlook and theology.
And the larger community is ideal, as well.
“Davis is pretty unique,” noted Habicht. “Residents want to be engaged. And this town has knowledge and expertise that I’ve never seen anywhere else.
“This town also has strong voices that embody the community’s values,” he added, “voices like Jay Gerber’s. Jay upheld these values and I see this (award) as a yearly reminder of what’s important: Our values and how you embody them.”
His nominators would agree.
Making Habicht the first recipient of the Jay Gerber Award, they said, “would be an especially appropriate way to honor our best memories of Jay, who most generously devoted his own energy, intelligence, imagination and love to this community as well as to the church Bill serves as pastor.
“Like Jay,” they said, “Bill does these things not in hopes of receiving praise or recognition, not for career advancement or financial gain, but simply as a gift of love.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy