Nell Perry Bovender has been the face and voice of Rutherford Housing Partnership (RHP) for 18 years leading the nonprofit organization as its executive director. Completing her full-time role as transition director with new Executive Director Mel Ailiff on September 30, Bovender is looking forward to retirement. Although likely to be semi-retired Bovender will continue some duties with RHP.
When she awakes on October 1, her hope is to see an "empty page on her calendar book," Bovender said during an interview while social distancing in the gazebo at the Spindale House. She explained after erroneously deleting an entire month of appointments she kept on her phone, Bovender now keeps a paper calendar. It works best for her and she hopes for some empty pages.
She and husband Tim live in Gilkey on their farm, a designated NC Conservation Farm Family of the Year, and she is ready to go home.
Bovender is looking forward to sleeping in, taking afternoon naps and relaxing on days with "no plans." The couple's two children Will and Ali live in the area and she's also looking forward to spending some time with her grandchildren.
When it's allowed again, Bovender wants to lose herself inside a movie theater, a favorite pastime when there was opportunity. Bovender also hopes to do a road trip with her husband when she feels it's safe to stay in a hotel.
RHP changed her life
At the helm of RHP for the past 18 years (Ailiff started her job as executive director on July 1), the job Bovender created turned into one that became impossible for a one-person staff.
After several years RHP was financially able to hire an office manager and a construction manager to help coordinate the growing list of projects.
Bovender is confident the board has picked someone (Mel Ailiff) that can grow into her job quickly. From writing grants to recruiting thousands of volunteers, reviewing applications and helping oversee the Housing Matters portion of RHP, the executive director's role developed into more and more challenges and opportunities.
"There are new ways to do the job," Bovender said. "I am not able to juggle things like I used to," she said. "The younger staff are more savvy on computers."
At the end of this month, Wednesday, Sept. 30, Nell will not be in the RHP office in Forest City.
"I have to step away," Nell said as she enters final day as the transition director.
"Rather than someone say, 'I'll just call Nell' when they need help, I want people to say 'Call Mel and Tricia and they will take care of you'," Bovender said. Tricia Wheat is the office manager. Brannon Freeman has filled the role as construction manager.
Bovender promises to be available when she is needed.
"But it is fun to watch Mel and Tricia, these young folks 'get it'."
Bovender talked about her years as executive director of the highly successful nonprofit group that is 25 years old this year, begun by volunteers with Rev. Billy Honeycutt among the first on board to help homeowners.
In over two decades, RHP has completed more than 2,000 urgent needed repairs at homes of qualified, low-income homeowners in Rutherford County.
"This is the best job I have ever had. It changed my life and increased my faith" she said.
A strong Christian woman with a desire to serve the Lord, Bovender found the perfect way to be the hands and feet of Jesus through RHP.
During 18 years of identifying urgent housing projects and recruiting volunteers, Nell has seen and heard hundreds of stories. She has witnessed the worst of urgent repair needs where floors were falling in as the ground underneath was visible and homes where roofs were caving in.
One story Bovender has never forgotten is one where a woman called the office desperately needing an air conditioner in her single-wide trainer. "She was burning up," Bovender said. She hung up the phone and immediately it rang again.
"This is one of those times God blatantly worked to get things done," Bovender said.
Teresa Sams, the secretary at the Green River Baptist Association office, was on the other end of the line telling Nell someone had just called and said they had an air conditioner available if anyone needed it.
Nell also shared the story of a woman she will never forget who called the office needing a handicapped ramp built at her home. Her disabled father was coming to live with her.
"This was a troubled woman and had lived a troubled life."
With volunteers, the handicapped ramp project was scheduled and a group of youth arrived to build the ramp.
During the project Nell said she went to check on the volunteers and the project.
Bovender said the woman was sitting in a chair watching the ramp being built.
"She looked at me and said, 'how can I do that'? " Bovender said.
This troubled woman was inspired in those moments by the youth group trying to help. She wanted to do the same.
"I told her there were always opportunities to help others," Bovender said. "She couldn't get over a group of youth taking a hot summer day from their vacation to help her Dad."
The woman later helped on a roofing project and was an RHP board member for a while.
COVID-19 changed a lot
"I knew it would be an odd summer because I was retiring but to have this pandemic," she said.
RHP has been able to complete a few projects this summer, which is usually the busiest time of year as hundreds of volunteers come other states to help with housing repairs.
Volunteers from Appalachia Service Project, visiting youth groups and local volunteers have always provided countless hours of volunteer time helping homeowners in Rutherford County.
A few projects have been completed this summer by some volunteer groups such as Missions in the 'Boro, Green Hill Baptist Church, Gardner-Webb camp participants and the staff from Carolina Cross Connection.
The Women Roofers had to cancel its second WeBuild Camp and the popular fundraising Gears & Gable cycle ride also had to be cancelled.
"It's hard to believe five months have passed. I hope this (virus) is just for the year... but normal may not ever be normal again," she said of COVID-19.
"I hate that we might not be able to hug each other again."
Bovender will not leave volunteering although in years to come things will also change for her. She figures someday she'll be on the ground crew of Women Roofers.
She may return to the office to help with paperwork and mail-outs.
"I know things will change. My brain isn't as young as it used to be. My brain's too full," she said.
Bovender will continue volunteering with the Women Roofers, the Welcome Table at First Baptist Church in Rutherfordton where she is a member and with RHP.
There will always be work to do
After graduating from North Carolina State University, Bovender was a reporter and editor, spending 15 years at newspapers in Garner, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. She later did freelance work for other publications before coming to RHP.
Those writing experiences enhanced her work at RHP as she has written news releases, edited copy, written grants, brochures and newsletters.
"It all came together in this job" she said.
When Bovender began her job 18 years ago she hauled materials, tools and everything else in her vehicle traveling all over the county identifying projects and recruiting volunteers.
Today there are vans and trucks for hauling equipment and tools and a group of dedicated volunteers with a willingness to help.
"This group has done an awful lot with a little. People are willing to help."
And the work of RHP goes on as there will always be a need.