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Our Towns Habitat gets a new boss

By Bill Kiser
bkiser@charlotteobserver.com

Paul Robinson Jr. has made a career out of serving in the nonprofit community, and it has taken him all over the world.

But his newest job will bring him a little closer to home, as Robinson takes over as executive director of Our Towns Habitat for Humanity.

In hiring Robinson, Our Towns Habitat has brought on a chief executive with extensive experience in the world’s nonprofit community. His assignments have taken him throughout Central and Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and southern Asia.

“It’s the same mission: serving communities,” said Robinson, who began work with Our Towns Habitat on Aug. 5. “Community development is community development. People have needs, and the way to run a good community development program is to listen to your community, see what the needs are and find where the gaps are.

“My experience has opened me up to many of the international communities we’ll be working with, the ones we want to get more involved with and be more sensitive to their needs.”

Our Town Habitat’s board of directors had to make a long-distance call to tell Robinson he was hired. Robinson was in Iraq, serving as executive director of MSME Finance, a program developed by Relief International that provides micro-financing for startup businesses in the war-torn country.

“They had contacted me before about (the position),” Robinson said. “But it’s about a seven- or eight-hour time difference over there, depending on whether it’s standard time or daylight time. It was always early morning or in the evening when they called me.”

Robinson – who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania – had his share of adventures while serving overseas. He spent nearly four years in Afghanistan before death threats forced him to leave, and he was in Haiti when earthquakes rocked the country in 2010.

“The FBI wouldn’t give me the exact reason (for leaving Afghanistan),” Robinson said. “I just got a call from them, there had been a threat detected, and they told me I needed to get out of the country for a while.

“But the most challenging was Iraq. It was a combination of everything – security, the bureaucracy, everything. But the program has been going on since 2006, and it’s been growing.”

Now Robinson can get readjusted to Eastern Daylight Time at his home in Charlotte, which he’s owned since 2007. It also reunites him with his wife, Ida, whom he met while working in Colombia; and daughters Sophia, 12, and Emily, 10.

“In the early days, they’d come with me,” Robinson said. “They’ve traveled all over. They’ve been through Asia, Latin America and Europe with me; they’ve been to school in Afghanistan and Jordan. My kids even collected toys and school supplies for the kids in Haiti, and they went with me there to deliver them.

“That’s part of why I came here – to get back and be with them. I’m very committed to working with mission-type stuff; that’s been my career. If I had come back and worked for one of the banks, it’d never be a good fit. But it was a blessing that this position came along.”

He’s also getting used to working with the Our Towns Habitat staff, which is celebrating the organization’s 25th anniversary this year, but Robinson said that has been the easy part.

“It’s much, much better here than I could have imagined,” he said.

A big reason for that, according to Robinson, is the experience of the staff, both paid and volunteers. For example, 18-year volunteer Enrique Sanchez, who was named interim director when Terry Laney retired in March 2013, has remained on staff as associate director.

“Having Enrique here, he’s been ‘bleeding blue’ for Habitat for a long time,” Robinson said. “Another blessing is that we’ve got a board that’s active. Usually when you come into affiliates like this, you can get into some real governance issues. These guys, it’s wonderful to get the participation of the board and not have to do everything myself.

“You’ve got a well-seasoned team with a mission orientation and strong skills. They’ve been doing what they’ve been doing for a long time, and they’ve been very successful. At one time, this was the affiliate of the year for Habitat, and it’s still one of the top affiliates in the nation.”

Kiser: 704-892-3662; Twitter: @BKiser_CLTObs
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