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The Gift of a Home, the Empowerment of a New Life: Kathy Benjamin’s Habitat for Humanity Story

How a Second Chance Ignited a Flame of Giving Back

Anyone who has lived or visited the upper midwest knows that winter here isn’t something to take lightly, and the homes we live in are the unspoken heroes in our day-to-day lives. What’s the difference between a house and a home? I would argue that a house is just the physical aspect, while a home is a place for safety, nourishment, a place for family; a home is a house with purpose and meaning. Habitat for Humanity also believes in this, as its mission is to give people the opportunity to build a new life and give hope to communities. This project is about Kathy Benjamin and her inspiring story of not only a second chance, but how that ignited her own flame in helping recovering individuals in the community.

For most individuals, our experiences shape not only our reality but also our perception of the world and what “normal” looks like. For individuals recovering from addiction, that lifestyle is their normal, and oftentimes, they just need to be shown what a new and healthy normal looks like and for a loving hand to be extended to them. Although there were many helping hands along the way, for Kathy Benjamin, that ultimate extended hand was Habitat for Humanity.

Before that door opened, however, many doors in life had closed for Benjamin due to her struggles with addiction. “Most of the reason why people use is because they’re trying to get away from the pain that they’re dealing with,” she said. “And that’s a huge reason why I used for so long.” Benjamin was a cross-addict, using anything from alcohol to opioids to methamphetamine, and spent time in and out of jail. For Benjamin, things got worse before they got better, but a few key wake-up calls that gave her a new outlook on life were the death of her sister, personal struggles with suicide and helpful programs from her tribe. Being in and out of foster care as a child gave Benjamin a dream that would stay with her and one day come to fruition: being a social worker.

“Because that’s the life I had lived, that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I had a really amazing social worker when I was younger; he saved me from a lot of different abusive homes, he believed me and he trusted me and I trusted him and he was just a phenomenal and inspirational person in my life.”

It was when Benjamin began moving up into a CSD admin role that she started to realize she had more potential than she let herself believe. This inspired her to go back to school, yet the voice of self-doubt still stood in her way. But just like self-doubt, believing in yourself is a learned behavior, and over time, Benjamin followed the voice of her motto: don’t think, just do—and she did.

Benjamin went back to school full-time while also working full-time. With her dream to be a social worker, Benjamin applied for foster care. Initially, she was denied because of her record, but again this gave her the inspiration to keep trying, and eventually, she was successful, earning her foster care license and getting connected to organizations where her passion for helping others could blossom. “If you have a dream, and somebody’s going to tell you no, that doesn’t mean you just give up and walk away,” she said. “That means you keep trying, because who you used to be and who you are now are two completely different people. And if you can somehow find a way to prove and show that to people, that’s going to tell a bigger story than anything else.” For Benjamin, it did. And doors opened themselves to her, giving life to her purpose.

“From the beginning, I had to come back from evictions, I had to come back from bad credit and I had to come back from all of the negatives that were stacked against me,” Benjamin said. As she began to rebuild her life back and made the most of the second chances given, Benjamin applied for Habitat for Humanity a couple of times, striking gold the second time. It seemed she had finally found her silver lining.

Now, part of the pre-qualifying process for being selected by Habitat for Humanity is a walkthrough inspection of your current living situation to note what certain needs the candidate may have. “It was so funny because I had parts of my ceiling that were kind of caving in, but that was normal [for me],” Benjamin said. “I had things that weren’t working, and I didn’t think that was weird—that was normal.”

Like she mentioned before, Benjamin tried to talk herself out of it, thinking she was crazy for needing a better living environment. But when the inspectors came in, she quickly realized that what she had deemed normal for so long was not suitable and she was the perfect candidate for a new home. Soon later she was selected, and the process of receiving a new home was underway.

One of her favorite aspects of being selected for a Habitat for Humanity home is the courses one has to take to become prepared for homeownership. “I think it’s amazing because that’s probably a huge piece that people struggle with when they get homes; I didn’t have that kind of role model growing up,” she said. The courses included home and lawn care as well as finances and money management, which was the most helpful for Benjamin.

By just practicing what she learned from these courses, Benjamin was able to pay off her credit card debt, build her credit exponentially and even buy a car in cash. And now, Benjamin and her kids have a beautiful home that they can call theirs! “Giving [my kids] a solid environment that’s safe and a good neighborhood is amazing,” she said. “When you walk into the house it’s new, and that’s something all of my kids deserve, and so do I. It’s nice to walk into a home and be able to feel like you are enough, and you have something that nice that’s yours. My kids can bring friends over and they’re not embarrassed that this is their house.” Through her hard work and dedication, Benjamin is creating a new norm for her children and herself.

One huge element that Benjamin learned through working with Habitat for Humanity is that you’re not alone and there are people you can trust who want to see you succeed. “I realized that I was going through life all by myself this entire time,” she said. “When I got into my 12 Step support groups, I realized that you can do things by yourself— sure—but when I finally learned that I could start trusting people to help me, it was a lot different.” Then when Benjamin began working with Habitat for Humanity, they allowed her to be a part of the process. As per their motto, it’s not a handout but rather a hand-up. “It made me feel better knowing that I had to work for it—I still did a downpayment, I still invested my time into this house, I got to help build it and not just my house but other people’s houses and I got to volunteer at the resource center. That felt really amazing.”

Today, Benjamin is extending her own hand-up to those in need, working closely with Achieve Recovery Homes CEO Ben Reiswig in building sober living homes for women in the community as well as providing care coordination at F5, another organization that helps people find a new life after addiction and prison. Working at F5 also allows Benjamin to work more with the Indigenous community she came from, which has been an opportunity to give back to the people who helped facilitate growth and recovery for her. “My purpose is to help people like myself,” Benjamin said. “I have been through just about everything in life, from childhood to adulthood. Once I realized that I can sit down with just about anyone and relate to something tough they have gone through and show them how I got through it, I knew I was meant for helping.”

Four Pieces of Advice that Helped Me


The first and most important piece of advice I have when you are trying to progress in anything in your life is to remain open-minded. You have to be open to suggestions from other people, the worst that’s going to happen is you are going to try it and it won’t work for you, but you still learned something.


The only time you fail is when you stop trying. And anytime you start thinking about everything that could go wrong… stop thinking. Just do it. Again, the worst that will happen is it doesn’t work out and bam—another lesson. Most people look at their weaknesses as just that—a weakness—and that it is what is going to hold them back.


What I have found is if I can find the energy that drives my weakness, I can use that energy to drive my weakness into a strength. I feel that same way about pain, I have been through so many painful and traumatic situations, for a while there I did let them get to me (hence my addiction). After a while, I realized I had a tremendous amount of resiliency and that all that pain brought me so much experience.


There is no book in this world that can teach you how to get through what you have already survived. Your pain is your training; you are the book and you get to tell a story that others can relate to. That’s where I found the silver lining that helped me paint a career into something I’m passionate and knowledgeable about.

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4 Things I Recommend NOT To Do

When it comes to recovery, as attached and connected as you feel to the people of your past, you have to leave the past in the past. There is an amazing recovery community out there where you can build a new family. You won’t and shouldn’t ever stop loving those people from your past, but you have to love yourself enough to know that boundaries will keep you on the right path. It’s easy to slide down a hill of ice if you put even one foot on it.

For a new home, throw out all junk and anything you don’t need before you get to the new home. It’s so much easier to unpack and organize your new space without the clutter. Don’t decorate all the rooms at the same time; focus on one room at a time when it comes to decorating. Watch for sales and the online Facebook market. Don’t go broke trying to make a space how you want it. Be patient and search for decor ideas on break.

3 Things I Loved Most about working with Habitat for Humanity

I loved being involved in the building process. I also enjoy that I am still a part of the habitat community. Habitat is part of the giving back chain that I come from, they helped me and now I get to help others.

Know someone who may be a candidate for a Habitat Home? To learn more about qualifications and applications, visit lakeagassizhabitat.org/apply.

To learn more about F5, visit f5project.org

To learn more about Kathy Benjamin and Ben Reiswig’s mission at Achieve Recovery Homes, visit bismarcksoberliving.org

Written by Josiah Kopp

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