Bill Henderson will quickly tell anyone that the things he does for others are not about satisfying himself. He just wants to make their lives a little better.
That’s why the former Greenwood resident founded and fully funded a nonprofit, The Starfish Project, in 2014. That’s also why, after his recent move from Starkville to Hoover, Alabama, he’s given the nonprofit’s 14 residential units to the Greenwood-Leflore Fuller Center for Housing.
Unlike other Fuller Center projects, these residences — duplexes and houses — are rentals purposely purchased to provide people in need with decent housing at a rental no greater than 25 percent of their income.
“We are happy to receive those generous gifts, and we are happy to continue to build upon Bill’s good work,” said the Rev. Steve Fortenberry, president of the Fuller board.
Until now, the center’s mission has been only to offer home ownership to people who ordinarily would not qualify for a mortgage. “Right now, we are holding the mortgage on about 25 homes,” he said.
With the Starfish gift, Fortenberry said, “our plan is to honor the lease agreements with everyone who has them but also to offer the possibility of purchasing those homes.” He said it’s possible that with first-time-homeowner grants and interest-free financing from Fuller, the residents might be able to pay less for a mortgage than a rental.
But none of that is yet arranged, and the transfer was just made on Oct. 31.
Henderson said he is grateful that Fuller stepped up to manage the residences. “I needed somebody local to pick them up,” he said.
His occupation as the president of a charitable enterprise began five years ago, but his desire to help people is rooted in decades of not knowing exactly what he could do to improve lives.
In Greenwood, Henderson worked 25 years for Greenwood Leflore Hospital. In 2004, he took a job with Mississippi State University, from which he retired a month ago. Before leaving Greenwood, he was instrumental in the establishment of Johnson Street’s Community Kitchen.
But soon after the kitchen was started, Henderson moved 90 miles away. In 2014, he could see retirement approaching, and he quit working full time at the end of 2015. It was during that time period that he wondered if he “maybe could help a few people in Greenwood who needed a good place to live.”
“I was over there in the wintertime. It was cold,” he said. He noticed people outside without coats or without warm coats. “I knew they didn’t have a good place to go,” Henderson said.
That’s when he thought, “Maybe I can throw a few starfish back,” referring to “the starfish story.” The tale, which American philosopher Loren Eiseley titled the “The Star Thrower” as part of an essay first published in 1969, describes a man on a beach returning starfish to the ocean rather than allowing them to die. Henderson said the man couldn’t throw all of the starfish back, but he could save some of them. Henderson named the nonprofit Starfish because he had taken the idea to heart.
He thought he could manage to provide at least some housing for people in need.
“I kind of dove right into it. Got the organization formed. Started looking for property. I had a lot of help from Tish Goodman and Richard Oakes,” he said. Goodman is a Realtor, and Oakes is an attorney who practices real estate law. His daughter, Cathy Henderson Carver of Hoover, and his son, Robert Henderson, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, joined the nonprofit as members of the board.
Using his own money, Henderson bought three one-bedroom houses on Avenue I for Starfish and its renters. “They were all occupied, and I was trying to find property that was unoccupied, fix it up and find somebody who needed it.”
That’s how he ended up with the 14 residences in 11 buildings. The others are located on Fulton, Howard and Henry streets. None of them rents for more than one-fourth of the renter’s income.
Henderson has used the opportunity to visit with the renters so he could better support them. He let them house as many people as they wanted in their places and told them to let him know when something was wrong. He explained to them, “If there is a hole in the wall, we’ll fix it.”
“I came every week, just about,” he said. “I would go by and talk with them.”
Occasionally, there was “something personal they wanted to talk about.” If so, he was ready to listen.
“We need to interact with each other across lines,” he said. “Whatever lines that divide us, we need to overlap those. I wanted to do that in getting people a better place to live — better than they had before.”
Now that the housing’s been transferred and he is living 200 miles away, he’s not sure how Starfish will continue to serve. Maybe another opportunity will come along. He said he is enjoying his grandchildren.
Henderson said there is a desperate need for affordable housing. “The problem is not livability. It is availability,” he observed.
He continued, “In Greenwood now, they have some really good things going on,” referring to the new Greenwood Community Center on Avenue I, which is undergoing renovations, and complimenting the work of the Greenwood Mentoring Group, Delta Streets Academy, the Community Kitchen and the Fuller Center, among others. He is enheartened by their efforts. “I am really glad to see that. It is good for the community.”
•Contact Susan Montgom-ery at 581-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.