Volunteers help at a Habitat for Humanity home


Habitat’s Director of Community Engagement — a Poet, Survivor and Difference Maker

Standing here,

my knees


wind biting my face,



D O W N,

eyes shut


my voice imprisoned behind gates of pink lips,

I say a prayer.


don’t let me hit the pavement.

So many times, Maerine “Mimi” Mitchell survived on faith. That faith didn’t just inspire a poem, it fueled her to carry on after losing her father at 4 and her mother at 16. It kept her going despite a college campus so quiet she couldn’t sleep. Where were those sirens that kept her awake back home in New York City? She always found a way to move forward, despite struggling with difficult choices, like whether to pay rent or buy food.

“My whole life has been about a leap of faith,” says Mitchell, Director of Community Engagement at Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg. It’s a role she created that combines many areas that are meaningful to her — volunteerism, faith engagement, advocacy for affordable housing, youth outreach.

“I love what I do, and I love that I get to do so many aspects of it,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell grew up in government housing in Brooklyn — “What they’d call the projects today,” she says — where street fights were regular along with the sound of gunshots. She didn’t know it was abnormal for a man to be shot in the head in front of her house.

“I remember walking to the store once and seeing three men pull a gun on a man,” she says. “I backed up and went another way.”

That was the home Mitchell knew until she was 16. That’s when her mother died.

“She suffered a massive heart attack, which I was there for,” Mitchell says. “I became a ward of the state.”

Mitchell moved in with an aunt but at 18, she applied to college, only looking out of state. Her stepfather was former military, prompting her to apply in Virginia. Accepted by Virginia Wesleyan University, she was eager to move away, unaware of the culture shock that made for a stressful first year.

“It was really quiet, and I was not used to the quiet. I couldn’t sleep,” Mitchell says. “I didn’t know how to drive, either, and you have to drive everywhere here. It was hard.”

But Mitchell didn’t go home. Instead, she blossomed at Virginia Wesleyan. She dropped her sciences major originally selected because she didn’t know how to do CPR to save her mother. But she realized she wasn’t cut out to be a doctor and opted for English with a focus on creative writing, encouraged by a professor who heard her read during a poetry slam. She joined Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) that fostered her love of service. She became president of the Step Team.

Mitchell worked multiple jobs on campus and when it was time to graduate, she wasn’t ready to leave. It wasn’t the news her aunt was expecting after calling her niece with news that a moving truck was reserved so she could return to New York.

“I’m not coming home,” Mitchell told her at the time, and yet . . . “I had no job and no place

 to live and no idea what I was going to do. But I knew I wasn’t ready to go back.”

This is a huge jump.

 I don’t want to fail.

Don’t look down.

That’s what I was told,


my eyelids peel back like the skin off a banana


I peek.

Air fills my lungs,

as my heart throbs in my chest.


I’m not ready.

I’m not ready to leap.

With help from the Student Activities office, Mitchell found a job and remained on campus for a summer until she could save enough to move in with a sorority sister. The next few years were challenging financial ones. Mitchell relied on public transportation and rides from friends for jobs at The Virginian-Pilot and at a Virginia Beach recreation center before she joined AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service program designed to alleviate poverty.

Mitchell became a certified mediator, a credential that ultimately led her to start a mediation program at The Up Center, which provides support services to children, families and communities.

“I really liked helping people,” she says. “Being a mediator is a lot of work but so rewarding in the end.”

Realizing her additional skills in grant writing and coordinating community service days would be valuable to any nonprofit, Mitchell decided there was only one she wanted to work for, and that was Habitat for Humanity.

“Habitat is international, it had name recognition and it has a mission that speaks to what I’m about,” she says.

Mitchell actually turned down her first opportunity to work at another Habitat affiliate because the position focused solely on grant writing, and her dream was to make an impact on multiple fronts using all of her capabilities.

“That was another leap of faith,” she says.

Twice she sent her resume to Habitat to Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg, and the second time, her varied background caught the eye of CEO Janet V. Green, who brought her aboard as a volunteer coordinator.

Mitchell joined Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg six years ago, and over the years, she combined several areas to create her current role that combines recruiting volunteers, growing the community repairs program, writing grants, engaging churches and youth, and advocating for affordable housing.

“I love it here,” Mitchell says. “I have my hand in so many aspects of service.”

Beyond her work for Habitat, Mitchell is rarely idle. She enjoys spending time with her son, Sebastian, a year-round athlete at age 11. She works with Virginia Wesleyan, chairing its high school program to help students apply to college and preparing undergraduates for what’s next. She is still very active with AKA, currently serving as her chapter’s graduate advisor and treasurer of its Virginia Beach Pearls Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to educational advancement, health empowerment, health education and economic endowment in Hampton Roads.

Mitchell recently completed a Master of Fine Arts as well as her first manuscript in young adult fiction. That’s the genre she’s most excited about these days, but her poetry roots will never leave her.

My toes coil into rings


bumps crawl up my arms like spiders,

but I knew.

This was it.

This was the moment.

My foot lifts into the air

and like a siren

my body follows.

I fall.

Off the ledge,

Off the familiar,

Into the sky,

On faith. – Maerine Mitchell


Want to invest in the community?


We help as many families as we can, but the lack of decent and affordable housing remains a critical problem in our area. By donating, you will provide upfront funding for building materials and services that makes interest-free loans to Habitat partner families possible. Habitat partner families help to build their own homes - alongside volunteers - and pay an affordable mortgage. Your monetary donations enable us to continue building strength, stability and independence for future local families.