Working Class Attorney rolls up sleeves for Habitat for Humanity

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Attorney Susie Cannell usually has a legal brief in her hand -- but she's equally at ease with a hammer, screwdriver or paint brush, helping to build or refurbish a Habitat for Humanity house.

Cannell's service over the past decade on the Family Support Committee, Personnel Committee and Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley has put her on the front lines of the organization's primary functions and in direct contact with local supporters and partner families. The nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization works to eliminate poverty housing, building and renovating homes in partnership with families who help with the construction of their own homes.

"The idea is that with safe, decent and affordable housing, families are better able to concentrate on parenting, employment, education and community involvement," Cannell says.

Habitat for Humanity has been a perfect fit for her interests. While her legal training doesn't directly bear on day-to-day responsibilities at Habitat, there are legal issues at the periphery of every aspect of what she does within the organization.

What she loves most is personal contact and hands-on involvement as a Family Support Partner helping future homeowners to complete requirements, including ownership readiness and financial management classes as well as putting "sweat equity" in their new homes.

"I've worked with many exceptional families over the years -- motivated, hard-working and brimming with enthusiasm for the new homes," she says. "As homeowners, these families are assets to their neighborhoods, even though they wouldn't qualify for a mortgage with a traditional lender. Habitat makes their dreams of home ownership a reality."

Cannell grew up in northwest Detroit with parents from working class families who lived through the Great Depression.

"In telling stories of the past, my parents used the phrase 'they own their own home' to signify something far beyond what those words meant to me," she says. "The phrase conveyed a sense of pride in home ownership as a symbol, not of wealth, but of security, stability and accomplishment.

"Consequently, I grew up to be a 'nester.' I've derived great pleasure and satisfaction over the years nesting in my own homes, and I love it that Habitat provides the same opportunity to families who otherwise wouldn't be able to experience that."

Although she can wield a hammer with the best of them, Cannell is not so much into the construction aspect; she spends most of her volunteer time advocating for families, helping them through the web of Habitat - a complicated organization because it uses so many volunteers.

"Prospective homeowners come into contact with staff members, financial sponsors, house leaders, board members and volunteers in every aspect of the program, as well as representatives of the other organizations that provide some of the educational training our families must attend," she says. "It's overwhelming for families at first; they don't know who's who so they don't know where to direct their questions and concerns.

"That's the purpose of the Family Support Partner -- to be their 'go to' person. Some families are more challenging and take more time than others for a myriad of reasons. The key is to establish a trusting relationship so that families are forthcoming about whatever is hindering their progress. Sometimes, there's little a Support Partner can do, but often we can act as a liaison between the family and whatever is creating the problem."

One of Cannell's most rewarding volunteer experiences is attending the "Dedication" of a house upon completion. The dedication is a gathering of the family purchasing the house, their friends and extended family, neighbors, house leaders and volunteers who worked on the house, Habitat staff and board members. Short speeches are made, many "thank yous" are extended and a religious representative blesses the house. The celebration includes a ribbon cutting by the family, refreshments and a tour of the house.

"I don't think I've ever attended a dedication at which I didn't get choked up," Cannell says. "It's always exciting and rewarding when the long awaited and hard earned keys are finally handed over to the new homeowners.

"The Habitat staff is wonderful and truly dedicated to Habitat's mission, and Executive Director Sarah Stanton is amazing, holding the whole complicated thing together."

Currently, responding to the realities of the foreclosure crisis, Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley is doing rehabs rather than building new homes.

"Habitat has been able to renovate foreclosed houses and put them back into use," Cannell says. "Since it's less expensive to renovate a house than to build one from the ground up, we're able to serve more families and hopefully revitalize depressed neighborhoods."

Cannell is not the only local lawyer volunteering with Habitat. She enjoys working closely with Ypsilanti attorney, Jim Jackson, a former Habitat board member for 6 years who has been doing Habitat's legal work as a volunteer since 2001. He prepares the documents and conducts the closings for Habitat's sales of the homes to families. Jackson also regularly attends "Legal Orientations" for new families, explaining the complex legal documents and meets weekly with Stanton and her staff to deal with and advise on any legal issues that arise.

"Jim was Habitat's Volunteer of the Year a couple of years ago and his services to the affiliate are invaluable," Cannell says. "Like other board members and volunteers, he's also a financial supporter of our affiliate. I can only imagine how difficult it is for him to devote so much time to Habitat while trying to manage a law practice on his own."

In 2002, on the initiative of then-president, Andy Muth, the Washtenaw County Bar Association sponsored a Habitat house. Attorneys not only collected funds to build the house, but did most of the construction themselves.

"I hope the local bar association will think about making that kind of commitment to Habitat again in the future," Cannell says. "It's a wonderful organization to support, either with a financial donation, physical labor or donating legal services, and you truly get back more than you give."

Meet Susie Cannell, a firm believer in giving 'hand up'

Susie Cannell is a specialist in complex commercial litigation and employment law with Hooper, Hathaway, Price, Beuche & Wallace in Ann Arbor, where she has worked for 16 years.

After graduating from Wayne State Law School with honors and as a member of Order of the Coif, she clerked for the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan and spent several years with Miller Canfield.

Since joining Hooper Hathaway in 1993, Cannell has been primary author of the firm's trial court and appellate briefs, resulting in a continuous track record of summary judgment and successful appellate decisions in Michigan state courts and federal courts throughout the United States. In addition to her litigation practice, she provides employment law advice to the firm's local and national corporate clients.

Like her co-workers, she contributes extensive time to local nonprofit organizations.

"I think we all feel that we're fortunate to be able to practice law in a town like Ann Arbor and we want to contribute to the organizations and institutions that directly serve the community," she says.

Cannell's background gives her an affinity for Habitat for Humanity's approach of giving a "hand up" rather than a "hand out," she says. When she was in her late twenties and her undergraduate college career at Wayne State University was entering its second decade, one of her professors, Sue Levy, took her under her wing, encouraging her to go to law school and offering to help her financially.

"Having struggled through college off and on for years while working full time, Sue's offer made me feel like Cinderella and I was game to try anything she thought was a good idea," Cannell says. "Sue passed away just before I started law school but her husband, Dr. Stanley Levy, graciously paid my tuition for all three years, for which I will be forever grateful."

Published: Tue, Dec 8, 2009


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