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Interview with Kitty Yerkes, May 1, 2009 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Kitty Yerkes, May 1, 2009
May 1, 2009
Kitty Yerkes and family came to Wilmington in late 1990's to enjoy a less hectic lifestyle than the "city to suburb" daily commute from New york City. They bought and renovated a house at 6th and Dock, she began1st Outreachat NHMC, he began a business and the kids settled in school. She was asked to join Domestic Violence Shelter and Services as Director of Development in 1999, and asked to join Habitat For Humanity in 2007, as Development Director. Kitty discussesHabitat International, home building as well as a Home store, Regional affiliates, requirements to build and own a home and how the mortgage system works. Kitty touches on how this completley changes the lives and outlook of families selected, their role, and only 1 default in over 103 homes built. A most interesting interview. This interview covers the creation of and guidelines for Habitat, now a worlwide, highly recognized organization.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Yerkes, Kitty Interviewer: Jones, Carroll / Boyle, Erin Date of Interview: 5/1/2009 Series: Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length 54 min

Jones: Today is Friday May 1st, 2009 and I'm Carroll Jones with Erin Boyle for the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Project and we're in the Helen Hagen Room, Special Collections UNCW. And with us this morning is Kitty Yerkes, you are Executive Director, is that the title?

Yerkes: Development Director.

Jones: Development Director of Habitat for Humanity in Southeastern North Carolina. Kitty has a most impressive career history in leadership positions with several of our most impressive local nonprofits. Good morning Kitty and thanks so much for sharing some time with us. Tell us a little bit about you, are you from Wilmington?

Yerkes: I am originally from Columbia, South Carolina and went to a girl's school in Danville, Virginia, my first two years of college and then came back to.

Jones: Which one was that?

Yerkes: Danville, it's in Danville, Virginia, called Stratford College it's no longer there. Avery College took over Stratford, Stratford was a girl's school and I graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1975, so the two years before that when there was a girl's school in Virginia it was taken over by the boy's school. So then I went back to my home town in Columbia, South Carolina and graduated from University of South Carolina and then immediately left, moved to Washington DC thinking that I would work for my Congressman and instead I worked for a law firm and that was a time when they were creating the Department of Energy and my job was to go on the hill and listen to Department of Energy hearings and come back and report to my law firm that was representing small independent oil companies.

Jones: Oh my gosh. Deja vu.

Yerkes: So I did that for four or five years and while in Washington I learned of a position in Edinburgh, Scotland and it was a publishing company and they were looking for someone to go to University of Edinburgh and do a small research project with students, mail the work back to the US. When the job was over that was it, so it wasn't leading to anything else, it was a one year assignment, it wasn't paying a lot of money and they wanted someone to go immediately and they couldn't find anyone to go. Well I heard about it and I said "I will go" and they said "Can you go in two weeks?" and I said "Yes I can go in two weeks."

Jones: You had a passport and everything?

Yerkes: So I got a passport quickly, it was a lot easier in those days and went to Edinburgh, Scotland and hired University of Edinburgh students to do this research project. We sent it back on little index cards. The person who I lived--I rented a house, I found two other Americans and I rented a house on the first of the fourth and the person who was my best friend was really the next door neighbor who was a retired schoolmaster and he was in his 70s and I would go over to his house and we would drink sherry and he would read Bobby Burns poetry and we would walk down the street to the pub.

Jones: That's out of a movie.

Yerkes: He was my best friend, it was fabulous.

Jones: You know that that's out of a movie, a British movie.

Yerkes: Yeah so the year passed and so I thought okay what am I gonna do now?

Jones: Did you do any travelling?

Yerkes: I did, I had some friends who came over and we went to Paris and Spain and there was one kinda funny story about we rented a little car, you know, this little mini car and . . .

Jones: Oh yeah, but when was this Kitty?

Yerkes: So this would have been in 1979 I guess and so we rented a car with a girlfriend, we were gonna go camping around the country and it was late one night and we were tired, so we saw what we thought was this beautiful little pond in France and we pulled over and we pulled our sleeping bags out and we thought, looking at the stars and we're thinking, "Isn't this just fabulous?" and we got a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese and we just think.

Jones: You did the thing.

Yerkes: We thought we were just, you know, perfect travelers.

Jones: What part of France was this in by the way?

Yerkes: This was along the Pyrenees, we decided we were gonna try to do the Pyrenees and go into Spain.

Jones: So you went from Spain.

Yerkes: Exactly.

Jones: The next morning were you gonna walk that walk?

Yerkes: Yes.

Jones: Oh lord.

Yerkes: Okay but we wake up the next morning and we look at what we thought was our beautiful pond, well it was just some, I don't know what, it was not the beautiful pond we thought it was that evening. So we quickly packed up and continued on our trip.

Jones: Was that the town?

Yerkes: I don't know, it was the town something but we had a fabulous trip and I did have lots of friends who came over and visited me and we did some day trips.

Jones: You have to do it once.

Yerkes: Okay so then that year ends and I decide okay what am I gonna do now, well I decided then I was worldly enough to just move back to New York. So I moved to Manhattan, I didn't have a job; I didn't know anyone and I lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women when it was still Barbizon Hotel for Women.

Jones: When it was still there that must have been 1980 or something?

Yerkes: Yeah and it was one of my most vivid memories of that is and it still had a curfew and you couldn't have men in your room. I remember people saying, you know, Grace Kelly stayed there and that's really the only safe place you could stay in Manhattan.

Jones: For what, five minutes or something?

Yerkes: So the rooms in the hallway there, elevators and there are benches by all the elevators and the little ladies that lived there would sit on the benches when you go out at night to be sure you were gonna come back for your curfew and they would say "Now where are you going? Now I'm not sure you have on the right clothes. Now are you sure about those shoes" and it was that's my memories.

Jones: It's like high school boarding schools.

Yerkes: It was exactly, it was exactly so that's what I remember about Barbizon Hotel for Women. So I got a job working for a law firm again and . . .

Jones: What was your degree, Kitty?

Yerkes: It was in sociology and psychology, not related. And then my career in New York lasted about 15 years and I worked for various law firms in the Rockefeller Center, I was in the Rockefeller Center, I was down in Wall Street and ultimately having the responsibility for support departments, all secretaries, all paralegals, all the support departments in these big law firms. Which was a lotta fun and that's where I met my husband is from New York originally, he's a graduate of Harvard and at the time when I was living in New York and didn't have a lotta money I volunteered at the Metropolitan Museum on Saturdays to have something to do that didn't cost me any money.

Jones: And you got chosen?

Yerkes: Yes.

Jones: You know there's a line waiting to do that.

Yerkes: Well back then there wasn't, I think back then and so I met another young woman who was doing the same thing, she was from Philadelphia and she and I got to be good friends and so we said well, you know, maybe we really need to go to business school or law school or we need to get some other degree and I said "Well I'll never pass the math" and she said "Well oh I know somebody who's really good at math, he can tutor us." So this was my friend's friend who ended up being my husband. So I said he knew when he married me that I couldn't do math.

Jones: Well that took care of that.

Yerkes: That took care of that, so luckily we have two children, luckily they're good in math so they got his genes on the math side.

Jones: So you didn't have to do the checkbook?

Yerkes: Exactly, exactly.

Jones: Was his business as a lawyer, what type of law in practice?

Yerkes: Well actually he didn't do law, he did early on voice recognition kind of work which was really back then, you know, it was pretty cutting edge back then.

Jones: Yeah I imagine.

Yerkes: So I lived in Manhattan with some girls for a while then got married and my husband and I moved out to Bedford which is a little suburb, Westchester County and we commuted into the city and when our second child was born and we had various au pairs and my husband's family was there but then they all retired and left, they moved to Santa Fe and Albuquerque and out west.

Jones: They did their thing.

Yerkes: And so then that left us there with the two kids and we never saw 'em because you're doing that commute into the city and they're asleep when you leave and somebody else is putting them to bed right when you get home and after his family left, we said "Well why are we doing this, let's move" and I wasn't the one who really wanted to move back south but my husband was and we like so many people picked Wilmington never having been here before, just sort of when all of those retirement books are rating towns and so that's how we ended up in Wilmington in let's see, I gauge it by my daughter was, when we moved here she was nine months old and she's 17 now, so 16 years ago.

Jones: Now when you talk about this is a curiosity, I have met people and I have joked about this, so don't take it personally that Wilmington after I40 particularly that I have heard--I will ask people I meet who have a very definite Long Island accent or whatever, "How did you choose Wilmington?" and they'll say "Well we contacted the Chamber of Commerce in this place, this place, this place and we knew we didn't want this and we didn't want that and we just took a drive" and one couple said "We ended up spending the night in Wilmington, didn't expect to, stopped the next two days, visited a builder of patio homes, bought one or put a contract on one, took the brochures, went home in our own neighborhood and moved down here." I said "I knew it" They all--all of Long Island neighborhoods moved en masse down here, you know, but so it's kind of-- but you'd specifically picked Wilmington, it wasn't just--you paid a visit or anything?

Yerkes: We paid a visit and I have a younger sister and she travels for work and she had been here on business and we were just looking at a variety of places and she said "Why don't look at Wilmington, have you heard of this little town Wilmington?" And then we did laugh about the fact then, we did look that they were the arts or an active lives, with the five acting theater companies that was a big issue to us and the other one, you'll laugh about this, was that there were two sushi restaurants.

Jones: Oh that's important.

Yerkes: We wanted to be sure there was a sushi restaurant and since there were two we said "Oh well we could definitely live in this little town." So we moved downtown on the corner of Dock and 6th in one of those old houses that, you know, years ago they took the old houses and divided them after World War II and so we returned it back to a single family dwelling and I remember some people when I would meet people through my children because they were young, you know, going to preschool would say--I'd say "We live downtown Wilmington." They'd say "Do you think its safe?" and I just wanted to laugh, you know, we were just moving from New York City and of course it's safe. So we were there.

Jones: Are you still there?

Yerkes: No we renovated it and sold it and actually I wish we hadn't sold it, I'd like to still be in that house.

Jones: That's a coming thing again it's a rebirth.

Yerkes: Yeah exactly, exactly and I was home with my two children for a short while and got totally bored and did a lot of work.

Jones: Your children, poor kids, mom was bored.

Yerkes: Well, you know, how many, times can you pick up peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk off the floor, you know, after a while and then you realize that when you're really detaining the mailman and he's delivering the mail and I'm thinking "I just really wanna talk to an adult, this poor mailman needs to deliver the rest of the mail, I just can't keep him all day."

Jones: I have to tell you, I know the feeling.

Yerkes: Well I think a lot of women do.

Jones: I know the feeling but, you know, it happened, it happened and we all survived it. We survived one another.

Yerkes: Yes exactly.

Jones: So anyway you sold that house and your kids were growing and you got bored and . . .

Yerkes: And so then the first job here in Wilmington for me was at the hospital and I worked for an outreach department that's mission was for the big hospital, New Hanover Regional Medical Center to reach out to the smaller rural hospitals and improve their emergency care and some rural health issues.

Jones: I'll be darned.

Yerkes: And so my job was to reach out to physicians in those other areas and then coordinate--there was a new state law that came into play so the hospital really had to do that.

Jones: And when was this Kitty?

Yerkes: So let me see this was probably about ten years ago.

Jones: And that was still under Bill Atkins?

Yerkes: Yes exactly.

Jones: So by 1999.

Yerkes: Yeah because he was real interested in emergency room care as you know. So anyhow so this program looked great on paper and, you know, it was gonna improve the health of our citizens in the rural area, the big hospital's gonna help the little hospital and I did that for about I don't know, a year or year and a half and I realized this looks great on paper but what is it really, what is it really doing, what is it really accomplishing, who is it really helping? So then is when from there I did also for a short while do a seniors program, health wellness for seniors which was a grant funded program, the grant ran out but I was really at this point really looking for something to do something that I knew made a difference and that's then when I went to the domestic violence shelter.

Jones: How did you do that, tell me about it?

Yerkes: Well actually I had.

Jones: Maryanne (inaudible) was?

Yerkes: Maryanne was there, our house downtown, not to reveal where the shelter itself is but our house downtown was not too far from the shelter and actually I volunteered because I could walk there so when the kids were in preschool I had a few hours and I volunteered at the shelter and that was really how I first got involved and worked with someone named Mebane Boyd, she'd be another good one for you to interview.

Jones: Who's this?

Yerkes: Mebane Boyd.

Jones: I know Mebane; she lives in a house down the street from everybody else in town.

Yerkes: Yeah, colonial right. She was in the development position and she left there to go to the Cameron Art Museum and she said "Please will you consider doing this fulltime" and I did and so I was at the shelter for about six, seven years and . . .

Jones: So you saw it really change?

Yerkes: Right I saw when there's the shelter proper and then there is an outreach administrative facility called the Open Gate.

Jones: Right that's where we would do our meetings.

Yerkes: Right which is advertised to the public, it's a place that provides walk in services and so this domestic violence shelter is really fortunate to have that building. There are a lot of shelters and shelters are such grass roots kinds of.

Jones: They're looking for another one for men.

Yerkes: Yeah, yeah so it's really this community is really fortunate to have Maryanne and to have the support from the community for the shelter.

Jones: One of the things I think they--you're right and just for the sake and cases, there's never been made valid that there are a lot of very well placed people in this community who have been very good with their time, donations and I suspect that this is an illness really that hits almost any family, there is no boundary as far as economics or anything else.

Yerkes: Yeah on that note I will say I was amazed once I started working at the shelter, people who would come forward and tell me their stories and it really does cross all socioeconomic levels and there are women who have decided for whatever reason they are gonna stay in abusive situations and at least if they will come forward at a place like the Open Gate where they can get emotional support and it really is so critical for women to reach out to the support they need. I'll tell you this is a story that happened recently, I was carrying my laundry basket of clothes down my steps and my little dog walked in front of me and since I couldn't brace myself when I fell down, I went and hit the tile, our tile floor at the bottom of the steps. Well I got a big black eye and you might be able to see a little bit, still a little bit on it, cut my lip, a big black eye. So I've swollen everything, so the next morning I go to my family doctor, just to be sure, you know, did I need a little stitch or just to check things out and I went in with my sunglasses and . . .

Jones: Oh don't tell me.

Yerkes: Well no what was amazing to me is in the area of you don't know what it's like 'til you walk in someone's shoes, I'm fortunate I've not ever been in an abusive situation and no one in my immediately family has that I know. But now I look like the typical victim so yeah I go in the doctor's office, they see me, I have time in the doctor's office with just the nurse who's cleaning up my lip to look and see do I need a stitch or whatever, it's just the two us, a woman. She says "How did you do this?" and I said "I fell down."

Jones: That's the typical answer.

Yerkes: Right, didn't ask anything more, the doctor who was male came in, he asked me the question, I purposely was evasive and said I just fell down. He did not ask me anything more.

Jones: He wrote it up?

Yerkes: Well then I go to leave and in this office like most doctor's offices, you know, there's sort of the area where the nurses are and all the charts are and people back there and I took off my sunglasses and I said "This is the face of domestic violence and no one in this family practice office asked me what they needed to do and you guys totally missed what should happen."

Jones: Now that surprises me, I thought you were gonna say something else.

Yerkes: So then now this time I'm no longer working at the shelter but then I went by the shelter and I said "Here's this family practice, here is this office, you guys need to call and you need to get 'em information" because I know there's a doctor packet that we send to all doctors.

Jones: There is, I see them in OBGYNs etc.

Yerkes: And most of 'em are good about it and they put it up. But this is a family practice; I mean what happened there was really inexcusable.

Jones: Interesting.

Yerkes: So anyhow back to the work at the shelter, I was really amazed working there the people that would come forward and I thought, you know, thank goodness they at least have a place and have a really lovely place, a supportive place with really well trained people who are reaching out to women. I think the university here hopefully is doing some more work after the issues that happened here.

Jones: Well they are because and the chancellor is very involved with that and I think they're fortunate too in the continued help of for example some of the churches, St. Andrews, Covenant Presbyterian which of course you know too their ladies were really responsible.

Yerkes: Were the founders.

Jones: And a number of businesses in town as I said it is hardly a begging operation, although in these times everybody is.

Yerkes: We're all begging.

Jones: You know, I mean there are big fundraisers next week and then they're just. But anyway so how long were you there Kitty?

Yerkes: Six years.

Jones: You know, I don't know how people can last longer than that.

Yerkes: Well I will say Renee McGill-Cox is the Residential Services Director which means she works with the women directly in the shelter proper and she is remarkable. She actually would be a good--she's African American, she's from this community and she's been doing this for 20 years too and she is remarkable and she will say and she's done talks so I'm not revealing anything that she would not reveal herself. Her first marriage, she's happily married a second time but her first marriage was abusive. So when she talks to women she's been there.

Jones: We have several people, in fact looking for more younger ones who will come forward and go into the hospitals, the workshops and so forth and there's college students. People like you.

Yerkes: And so from there my move to Habitat was really--I was really asked to do the development work at Habitat by Barbara Birkenhauer who's the current Executive Director. She knew me from the work at the shelter and we've met and she said "Can you help me find someone who's like you who can do this work for Habitat" and that was really about a time that I was ready for a change, you know, I still support the shelter and do everything that I can and what I realized really with the families that are in the Habitat program, there was really a lot of crossover.

Jones: I was going to ask you about that because I know that there's more than just the warehouse, it's different and development, I want you to talk about it, so we know what's going on.

Yerkes: Well this is a challenging, the recession that we're in right now, this is a challenging time, so hopefully, you know, we'll come through this in the next year or so. But for Habitat it's a particular challenge because our typical supporters are natural supporters, are builders, developers, people that are doing work that relates to housing and I think everyone recognizes affordable housing is a big issue here. When the city did their big blue ribbon commission study, affordable housing was the issue that came up at, you know, one of the top issues so affordable housing is an issue here. I think in part because we're on the coast, you know, the cost of land on the coast is.

Jones: Prohibitive.

Yerkes: Exactly, it used to be for Habitat we could buy Habitat lots in the range of $5,000, now it's $22,000.

Jones: Where can you find a lot for $22,000?

Yerkes: Well you know it's around various places but it's obviously not out on the water obviously. But land is getting harder and harder to find and from the development side what we're really raising money for is the land on which to build the Habitat houses because we can get materials donated, we can get volunteers to help build the houses.

Jones: Is it more economical to do it that way than to take an existing structure or neighborhood and take existing structures and redo them?

Yerkes: Well for us building new Habitat houses has been our typical model because it is a wonderful way to engage the community and it's a wonderful team building experience for people who come out and help build the new houses because then the homeowners too are doing sweat equity so people who maybe, you know, this idea of, you know, low income people to have folks who are out with the low income people who are doing the sweat equity realizing that those individuals, you know, have the same hopes and dreams that families have for their own children, you know that foundation of a safe decent place to live, we all have that.

Jones: How are these people chosen?

Yerkes: There is a family selection committee, there are three criteria, they have to show a need which means currently living in substandard housing, they have to show that they can assume a Habitat mortgage, they get a Habitat mortgage through us, they do purchase their house, a lot of people think they're given their house, they're not given their house, they assume an interest free mortgage and that mortgage payment is in the range of $450 to $500 a month which is in almost all cases less than they're paying for rent in some awful place and then they have to be able to do sweat equity. So those are the basic criteria to apply for a Habitat house.

Jones: Now the sweat equity are there parameters for what kind?

Yerkes: There are levels depending on the size of the family, everyone, children have to do the sweat equity as well.

Jones: You know what that's not such a bad idea for anybody.

Yerkes: No it's wonderful and that's why I think our program really works, Habitat's built, our little affiliate here in Wilmington, Cape Fear Habitat celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and Habitat has now built 103 houses and there's only been one mortgage default, one, so that's pretty remarkable when you look around the country today what's happening and I really think that's because of the sweat equity requirements, we require homeowners to do classes, they're mandatory classes, they have to go through credit counseling and then they're out there helping to build their house, they're out there with the hammer and doing the same work so that they understand their house.

Jones: You feel they're probably gonna take care of it better that way, they understand it.

Yerkes: Absolutely, you know, I think as you look at Warren Buffet, he doesn't give his children money because you know what happens, if somebody is given something and they don't work for it.

Jones: I agree with him.

Yerkes: These families have worked very hard, so if you think about the fact that they have to show us, they have to prove to us that they can pay their mortgage which means they have to have a job. So if they're working full time and they've gotta do these sweat equity hours, it ranges from again the size of the family, 250 hours to 450 hours to fit those hours in means it takes them about a year. They're coming out on Saturdays if they have a Monday to Friday job. There's some people who work on the weekends so they can come out and do their sweat equity now we have crews on Wednesday and Thursday. But it takes them about a year to go through that sweat equity process so they are working on someone else's house before they work on their own house.

Jones: That's excellent.

Yerkes: But here's the really cool thing, the part that's really fabulous is they've worked very hard, they've built their house, they move into their house, they are so grateful, cannot believe that they're homeowners, their lives are changed, their kids are doing better in school, they're not embarrassed to have people over. But the part that takes them a while to get, the real eureka moment is when they understand that their mortgage money goes into the pot of money that's leveraged to help build the next house. So they are really philanthropic themselves.

Jones: Gives them a good feeling.

Yerkes: A totally good feeling but it takes a while to get that because they're just so--cannot believe that they have a house that their four walls are their walls that they built that they own. So it takes a while to understand that like people will say "Every time I put my key in my door" they just feel so grateful, it's mine. But then when they realize they're helping the next person have that foundation for their life it is just.

Jones: A self-esteem factor.

Yerkes: Oh completely, completely.

Jones: You mentioned something a minute ago that I can imagine but tell me a little more that the children are doing better.

Yerkes: Yes that is-- we are really trying to track that and I'm really interested in tracking it because I think there is grant funding out there that relates to improving health and education for children, so Habitat has put--Habitat International and our local Habitat we are putting a big emphasis on tracking our kids because.

(Tape Skips)

Jones: Okay, we were talking about self-esteem, children, and the owners. A whole new different outlook, etc. Go.

Yerkes: What happens with the children is really remarkable. We recently--

Jones: And funding.

Yerkes: And the funding that relates to that. Kids--we have been told stories of children who could never go outside because they were in areas that were so dangerous they couldn't go outside. Then stories of being embarrassed to invite their friends over because they don't want them to see the kind of conditions they live in. Then what would so often happen to families that would qualify for our program is being forced to move from one place to another. You know the rent goes up or the roof leaks so badly they find another place to move. So families move from place to place which often required changing schools. Then they get totally lost in the shuffle. And what Habitat does, it's that foundation, but it's also that stability of housing. And the kids are proud of their houses, they invite people over. They're more engaged with their teachers, they're more engaged with their community. It really is that sense of community. And they're doing better in school. They're not dropping out, they're not getting pregnant, they're not doing drugs. And, again, I think the reason Habitat works is because they're paying their mortgage to habitat. If they get a month behind they have a one-on-one mentor that can go to them and say, "What's happening? Did somebody lose their job? What's happening?" So they have constant support of people who are helping them and being sure that they're on track. "How are the kids doing? How are their report cards? Have you talked to their teachers? Do they have any projects?" So it really does change the lives of these families and kids.

Jones: They have found a safe harbor and it's just trickle-down.

Yerkes: Well then it's just their expectations that they will own a house too. They're not going to be living in subsidized housing.

Jones: They've been given a chance to have that great American piece of the pie.

Yerkes: It breaks the cycle of poverty housing. It is one family at a time, but one family at a time is what works.

Jones: Kitty, let me ask you this. You speak of families, most of us think of a father, mother, and kids. Is that the norm or are we talking mainly about a mother and children?

Yerkes: We do, right now we have probably about 65% of our families are single moms. And that is obviously a population we want to support. But we do have families--we have one family that is a mom who adopted her grandchildren. So we have, you know, we have African Americans, we have Caucasians, we have, probably right now four or five Latino families.

Jones: I was going to ask you about the Hispanic community. They have to be working obviously. Do they have to be naturalized citizens?

Yerkes: Yes, they have to be U.S. citizens.

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