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Episode 15: Skip Brown, Freedom Builders of America


We’re hanging out this week with a dear friend, Skip Brown of Freedom Builders of America. As you’ll hear in our episode, Freedom Builders helps people on a deeper level than just home repairs, bringing the ministry of God’s love and grace to everyone involved. Skip says he wants the people his foundation touches to know that they matter. He shares with us today what lead him to start Freedom Builders, the technology they use to connect volunteers together while on jobs and back in the office, and more.

Freedom Builders Website

Freedom Builders on Facebook

Show Transcript

Skip (00:41):

That’s our underlying theme. I believe what our goal is, is that we want to give back. The family knows that the work is hard and they know it’s not pretty. And the people serving do it with joy. What they’ve been given is a gift, and it isn’t just the gift of a new bathroom. It’s the gift of: “I care about you. You may not know me, but I love you. I care about you. And I want you to know you matter. ”

Ruthy (01:09):

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Terrapin Small Biz Connection, powered by Terrapin Networks in Traverse City,.I’m Ruthy Kirwan, and together with my cohost Tim Gillen, we share with you the conversations that we have with area business owners, founders, and managers. We believe it takes a special kind of grit and resiliency just to run a small business in the “Up North”. And we’re passionate about bringing the stories of these companies and being open about the everyday realities, the good and the bad, with our audience. Our guest today is Skip Brown of Freedom Builders of America, located in Traverse City. Freedom Builders may look like another Habitat for Humanity, since they help renovate and build home repairs and renovations for needy members of our community. But as you’ll hear in our episode, what he has brought together over the years with Freedom Builders touches people on a deeper level. It helps bring the ministry of God’s love and grace to everyone involved, Skip says he wants the people his foundation touches to know that they matter.

Ruthy (02:04):

His work has done 100% on a volunteer and donation basis. He shares with us today what led him to start Freedom Builders , the technology they use to connect volunteers together while on jobs and back in the office. And more we spoke for so long with Skip on this episode as Skip and Tim are very close friends and we wound up putting together another bonus episode because we had so much material. There was no way we were going to fit it into our half hour show. So after you’re done listening to this episode, if you want to find out more about Freedom Builders and go a little bit deeper into our conversation, that bonus episode is going to be available on our website, Episode Number 15. So I’m going to hand this over to Tim to welcome Skip Brown from Freedom Builders of America.

Tim (02:53):

Well, thank you, Ruthy, and thanks for joining us for the Terrapin Small Biz Connection. Tim Gillen here with Terrapin Networks in Traverse City. As we do every week, we talk to an interesting small business owner up here in Northern Michigan. Today’s a little bit different show and it’s kind of something that we’ve supported and been a part of and is run by an old friend of mine. It’s a ministry here in Traverse City, Freedom Builders Missions, and they do some really interesting stuff for homeowners and the needy folks of Northern Michigan. The founder and executive director of Freedom Builders is Skip Brown. And he’s joined us to talk about this a little bit today. Hello, Skip. How are you?

Skip (03:41):

Good morning, Tim.

Tim (03:44):

Full disclaimer, Skip and I are old friends. Our outfit at Terrapin Networks is on the edge and has been kind of involved with Freedom Builders almost since they started. Skip and I spent several years in and out of prison ministry working with prisoners and some of the stuff in Northern Michigan. So we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the years. We’re not talking with a stranger here at all.

Skip (04:10):

It’s been an interesting and amazing relationship because quite honestly, I’m not a technology person. With a small operation, like we are, technology’s really important to us. And unfortunately Tim gets the brunt of “Oh man, I’m in trouble. I don’t know what to do”

Ruthy (04:34):

This plays right into his talents. He’s good at that stuff.

Skip (04:37):

I just think there’s a times I may have exhausted my relationships occasionally.

Tim (04:45):

No, not at all. Always happy to help. Always have been.

Ruthy (04:51):

Skip, can you tell us a little bit about Freedom Builders ? What do you guys do for the people that you help?

Skip (04:56):

First of all, I’m going to kind of qualify who our client base is. It’s people with critical housing needs that have no way to accomplish those tasks on their own. It’s the lowest income, the most impoverished and the most dilapidated housing. In most cases we serve 5 counties surrounding Traverse City: Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Antrim, and Kalkaska. And then we are occasionally dragged further than those geographies under special needs that that happen often. But what we do is assess the need, try to find the resources, both physical financial, from a labor standpoint. And then we orchestrate making that critical accomplishing that critical need. Volunteers are our primary labor source. I have two staff guys in the field, really their job is to equip and empower volunteers to serve people. Well, we say often here, we don’t care about fixing houses. We care about loving people so well they want to know the one who loves them the most.

Tim (06:09):

Amen. I’ll bring up a question that normally comes up whenever I discuss Freedom Builders with anyone. You guys kind of sound like habitat for humanity, but of course it’s quite different. So why don’t you tell us how it’s different?

Skip (06:23):

It’s absolutely different as much as I love Wendy and the folks over at Habitat are good friends. Their primary focus, to be quite honest, is safe, warm, and dry. You know, to accomplish good housing for us, the housing assistance that’s needed is exclusively a vehicle. It’s not our purpose. Our purpose really is to remind people that they matter, they’re cared for, they’re not forgotten, they’re loved. Because as dilapidated and as desperate as the housing situation might be the emotional challenges, the burdens that are weighing heavy on their heart are way more important to us than the house.

Tim (07:11):

Habitat focuses on getting people into a house. You guys have do more with remodeling and making the home that they’re already in more livable. Am I right?

Skip (07:25):

Yeah. Exclusively. I mean, once in a great while we’ve done, I think probably in the 20 years of the ministry, I’ve done three small additions, but other than that, we’re in repairs. Now the repair could be so extensive. We’ve had situations where we had one about a year ago that the trailer was a 14 by 70 trailer and we put a new roof on it, new windows in it, new doors and a new floor system in it, new plumbing in it. We completely started by gutting it down to being a 14 by 70 tube on the inside. And then renovated it completely. And the question that usually is followed when we tell somebody we’ve done, that is why would you do that? It’s gotta be way too much money. It’s not worth the return on the investment, but we can take that dilapidated place, turn it into an amazing home. Now it is a mobile still, but it’s going to be a beautiful mobile that quite frankly was in better shape than when it came off the factory floor. And we can do it for about $8,000. The worst I’ve ever spent on a project is $8,000 bucks.

Tim (08:43):

And by $8,000, you’re talking about actual components, the labor part. You don’t factor in the labor because people who are primarily doing it as volunteer.

Skip (08:52):

Yeah. If you were to pay people, it wouldn’t make any sense to do it.

Tim (08:58):

You folks do a fair amount of ramps and bathrooms and kitchens, right?

Skip (09:07):

Not so much the kitchens. I mean, we’ve done a fair amount of them, but you’re right, Tim, it’s probably wheelchair ramps, disability access bathrooms, or regular bathrooms. A lot of times it may not be disability access only. Say we;ve got a family of 3 or 4 living in a home where literally the toilet’s falling through the floor. I got a call from a single mom called me and said, “Skip, I really need help with my bathroom floor.” She had to fish her baby, who was crawling, out of the belly skin of the trailer cause she fell through the floor. And the sad reality is that stuff happens all the time. It might not always be a baby falling through a floor, but the level of devastation in our homes in this area happens way more often than anybody knows.

Tim (10:11):

You can see the help, it’s tangible. You can look at before and after pictures and understand the distinction. When we really get excited is when you begin to see hope. Tim, you and I have talked about that before. That’s our underlying theme. I believe what our goal is, is we want to give back hope where people have given up. A lot of times we might walk through a neighborhood that, you know, we’ll think of as being devastated. People who live there will drive through these neighborhoodsand think, “There’s trash in their yard and there’s stuff here and there and it’s wrong” and all of that. And the reality is it isn’t. We think the people in those neighborhoods are just lazy and they’re not trying. But what it is, more than anything, is they’ve given up. They don’t believe it can get any better. Today kind of stunk. And tomorrow is going to be worse.

Tim (11:12):

Because tomorrow always is worse. So they think, what’s the point.

Skip (11:16):

And then, these weird bunch of people show up to fix your house. When we get really excited is when these volunteers who don’t even know the person, who’ve never met them, show up on a Thursday morning or a Saturday morning or whatever, and the family knows that the work is hard and they know it’s not pretty. But the people serving do it with joy. What they’ve been given is a gift. And isn’t just the gift of a new bathroom. It’s the gift of, “I care about you. You may not know me, but I love you. And I care about you and I want you to know you matter.”

Tim (12:03):

That’s a pretty big gift. That’s beautiful. It really is Skip. What’s your favorite thing about running this organization, this ministry?

Tim (12:16):

Tim, what if you’d have asked me that a year, 2 years, 3 years ago, it would be different today. I would tell you for me, watching a volunteer begin to realize that God wants to use them to radically change somebody’s life for the good. And when they realize that this perfect God is so in love with them, that he’d be willing to use them to change someone’s life. And that that’s true for both the volunteers. It’s true for the families we serve, that they would come to a place of understanding that this God, is as messed up as their life is, loves them. Cause as you might imagine, you know, those of us who have a little more financial influence to cover our messes, we don’t have to share our dirty laundry with people too often.

Skip (13:18):

But people that are in poverty, unfortunately it’s like they’re exposed most of the time. Particularly when you show up in their house, that’s one of the things that’s different about what we do and what Habitat does as well. When we show up in a home, there’s no hiding the mess. When you’re in a Habitat house, it’s all brand new, it’s clean. It’s perfect. It’s different with us. We’re going to walk into a mess and love people in spite of the mess. That’s key. In spite of whether I’m a volunteer, whether I’m the family member that’s being served, we begin to realize that this perfect God is so in love with them, that he wants to serve them and use them to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Tim (14:16):

We talk about that sometimes with ministries like Freedom Builders, or in the common case of you and I, in the prison ministry, where the people doing the serving get just as blessed as the people being served. It’s one of those kind of things about about God that can kind of be a surprise. It’s not really what you expect, but it really turns out to be a very significant thing. And that’s what helps volunteers keep coming back. That’s what builds the volunteer bank, if you will, so that you’ll have bodies be able to go out and actually do this very effective work.

Skip (14:56):

And it’s interesting on that note, we’ve we someone asked me the other day, so how’s COVID-19 impacted your ministry? You might think that it wouldn’t be a negative impact, and it’s made life more difficult. But I did an assessment because of something coming up here soon. I was asked, so how many less projects have you done this year than this time last year? And the reality is we’ve actually done 13 more projects this year.

Ruthy (15:34):

How did the lockdown affect your movement?

Skip (15:36):

It’s made it harder with volunteers, Ruthy. A lot of our volume, particularly early on, a lot of the volunteers wanted to keep a distance. And I understand that because our needs were critical needs. I mean, if you can’t safely live in a home or if you can’t safely get in and out of it with a wheelchair and you’re living there all by yourself, we can’t help them while also maintaining a distance. We had to find a way to build a ramp. When that family was going to be evicted from their home you can’t just stand and watch that happen. When the APS worker is sitting there, saying, “I can’t believe you guys did this. You guys are wonderful and do amazing work.” And I said, nah, we’re just a bunch of messed up people who have an amazing God who works and lives in us. You and I talked about it, Tim, I take great comfort in the fact that our outcome isn’t determined by what happens in a project isn’t determined by how good we are. It’s determined by just showing up and letting God work.

Tim (16:49):

There’s that quote, often been attributed to Mother Theresa: “God does not call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.” And this is really what freedom ministry is all about.

Ruthy (17:04):

Skip, thinking about that APS worker and other people with whom you come in contact, what do you think the is most common misunderstanding from the community?

Skip (17:26):

I don’t know. One, I think less from the APS workers, but from the general public, I think the most common misunderstanding is the fact that when they see devastation, they think people are lazy. When I was growing up, I had a grandmother who said, “Soap is cheap, anybody can clean up.” And my dad would always say, “Anybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We’ve all heard that so many times but you know what? Some people can’t even find their dang bootstraps anymore. They get so lost in their devastation. They can’t figure out where to start. That’s what happens when somebody gives, when a bunch of people show up and serve somebody, what happens is that hope that comes, it allows them to try. And you know what, it’s the beginning of a change. It’s not going to be a light bulb switch that gets turned on and off overnight.

Tim (18:33):

Yeah. That can be very impactful. I know for some of the people who receive your services, it is the motivation that ends up coming from it that no one was really there to do. It’s not like, well, we’re going to come show you how to do this so you’ll get motivated. It’s. “We’re going to come and do this for you just because we love you. And because we know God loves you. So here, let’s fix this for you.” And it turns out being very motivating for people because they start to see a way out of that. This is what they were unable to see prior to that.

Skip (19:06):

Well, and when we tell the volunteers over and over again, “We love you too. But if you can’t serve with joy, we’re going to give you permission to go home.” Because if you serve with anything less than that, what you’ve given that family is another debt and they need another debt like they need a hole in the head, they need a gift. We did a big project where we gutted the trailer out. We cleaned out literally 40 cubic yards. And at the end of the work day I realized I hadn’t said goodbye to the homeowner. So I ran back inside and here’s the homeowner standing in the middle of this vacant tube, standing there, looking up at the ceiling, turning around in circles. I said, “What are you thinking?” He said, “This is amazing.” And I said, “We’ll get it put back together.” He said, “No, what I meant was, 40 people came and served today and they had fun, they actually care about me and my wife.” He wasn’t amazed at the construction work. He was amazed at the people serving with joy.

Ruthy (20:44):

At the love that he probably felt.

Skip (20:49):

The person we’re serving has changed. We can’t possibly be there and not be changed. And I think ultimately God is honored in the middle of all that.

Tim (21:00):

You know, it’s one of those paradoxical things about the concept of grace that is at the foundation of any Christian faith, because people will ask me about Freedom Builders , missions. I know they ask you, “How do you know that this does any good?” And you say, “Well, we don’t.” they say, “Well, how do you know that they’re not just being lazy?” Well, we don’t. They say, “Well then, why would you do it?” Because that’s not what we’re doing. It’s strange, but it’s at the heart of of our Christian faith.

Tim (21:37):

It’s the non-tangible aspects that you might not be able to actually see what you’re affecting.

Skip (21:43):

It’s funny, you know, my relationship with the industry is changing. I’m 68 years old. So I do less physical labor than I used to. Although I still am involved in the day to day operations, God has worked in amazing ways. And we have a team small that God has really ordained and placed here for this time. So I’m transitioning to working on over the next 6 months, we’ll work into being predominantly development work. I got a call pobably 4 or 5 months ago from the county who had this fund of money that had been set aside, but not been used for affordable housing. I think it was $300,000 and I had X number of meetings over the course of the event.

Skip (22:40):

They were asking, would we be helping willing to help in figuring out a way to use it for critical housing needs? I remember meeting with Nate Alger, who’s the County administrator. At one point I said to him, “Guys, we got to stop for a second.” they said, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “I need to tell you something.” And they said, “What’s that?” And I said, “I really don’t care about fixing houses, care about loving people’s so well they want to know the one that loves them the most.”

Skip (23:22):

And I said, if that keeps us from being able to use that resource, that financial resource you have, then I understand, but we can’t change our core purpose. And Nate looked at me and he said, you know what? It’s refreshing to see somebody who’s so committed to their core purpose, that they’d walk away from $300,000. And I said, last time I checked, God still owns a cattle on a thousand hills, and he’s been faithful to provide what we’ve needed over 20 years. I’m not going to give it up now. And it’s been a great relationship. It’s been a fun conversation. Nate’s got some history that makes him very understanding and empathetic of the people that we’re trying to serve.

Tim (24:15):

Well, to that end. Can I say that brings me actually neatly to our next question that I wanted to ask. What do you love about running your organization here in Northern Michigan specifically?

Skip (24:27):

I don’t know. What’s unique to Northern Michigan cause this is all I’ve ever experienced. But I believe a sense of community, a sense of, you know, today we watch such division between race and economics and political positions and, and even to some degree, religion. And what I love about Northern Michigan is when we explain to people, the desperation that others live in and how they can make the difference, we watched people go to places they would normally be scared to go.

Tim (25:19):

Yeah. On the volunteer side and the receiver’s side. Yeah.

Skip (25:22):

Yeah. And I will tell you we’re never going to have more money than we know what to do with, but financially we are in better shape than we’ve been in a long time. Although we’re serving at a rate that quite frankly, they’re emptying my bank account pretty quick. My guys are really effective. So the problem with our ministry, you know, unlike a construction company, the more work we do, the less money we have.

Tim (25:53):

Like so many things that it’s, it’s sort of, it’s sort of upside down like so many things that are involved in any kind of real ministry it’s sort of upside down. Skip, let me pivot just a bit. Tell us how technology has helped you guys. You folks use Evernote, you use Office 365. You use ACT and QuickBooks, so on and so on. How have some of those iPads, that kind of thing, how all that been able to help your, your ongoing development and your work in the field?

Skip (26:30):

It’s super critical. I mean, the reality is we’re a small organization. We will get done 350 projects in a year with two people and then managing volunteers and, and it’s communications it’s organization. And it’s we use it, we use Evernote to do our inspection process with we’re transitioning. We, we hope that will limit. We’re hoping to eliminate Evernote because we can develop our ACT program further so that we’ve got everything in one place. But Tim and I have talked about this a bunch. I’ve been using ACT for over 20 years before the ministry even started. And in the beginning, everybody was sitting there, like, why do you use that program? It’s such a pain in the neck to work with. And yet it has been exactly what we needed and there may be other products out there that do as well, but it’s worked for us.

Skip (27:27):

Well, what it’s done more than anything is it allows us to accomplish way more than we should be able to accomplish with a staff of 3. The idea that we manage upwards of 6 or 700 in a year, that we may have 6 or 700 different people involved. Not only the people we serve, but like caseworkers the volunteers that donors and we have to bring all of those people together and be able to communicate well with them.

Tim (28:03):

So you’ve used, you’ve used a technology very effectively, as well as efficiently, but very effectively over the years. And to help you grow and maintain the ministry. And that’s been a fun thing to be involved in, by the way,

Ruthy (28:18):

How can listeners get ahold of you? If anybody wants to be involved either as a volunteer and Freedom Builders, or if they are interested in obtaining your services, what’s the best way for them to go about that?

Skip (28:30):

Either the website or the office number. The website is Or 231-941-4171. That’s the office but it’s also my cell phone.

Tim (28:52):

All right, well, thank you so much for speaking with us today, Skip. We really, really appreciate it a lot.

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