Spirit of Oktibbeha: Wilkerson’s professional roots help Habitat landscaping bloom

Longtime Habitat for Humanity volunteer Wayne Wilkerson has worked for years offering his landscape design expertise on community service projects (submitted photo)

Most volunteers are able to contribute a hand or even just money, but one Starkville man was able to translate his professional experience into community service.

Wayne Wilkerson, 65, works with Habitat for Humanity in Starkville, helping to design landscapes for homebuilding projects. Wilkerson served on the faculty of Mississippi State University’s Department of Landscape Architecture.

The Kemper County native began volunteering while still on faculty and saw a need to expand the Habitat program because it previously did little in terms of landscapes, tending to focus more on the homebuilding aspect of the project.

“I saw a great opportunity to essentially start a new program,” he said. “I did some research, and there is no program like that in the United States.”

After retirement, Wilkerson ramped up his efforts with Habitat. When asked about why he chose community involvement over the stereotypical retirement hobbies, his answer was simple.

“it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I can’t imagine retirement where I go play golf every day.”

Wilkerson emphases the importance of landscaping and its role in home ownership, because of the numerous studies showing how landscape can improve property value.

“One of the problems we have in our community is the fact that a lot of people truly don’t understand how Habitat works and there’s a perception it’s a free lunch,” he said. “But they actually have a mortgage. The labor to build the house has been provided, but they still have to come up with payment every month just like the rest of us.”

Challenges abound when tackling hands-on volunteer projects, but project development is something that is in Wilkerson’s wheelhouse.

“Any time you start a new program its a challenge, but my whole life has been in startups,” he said. “I’ve been brought in to company positions to fix them or start them, but I think there is so much great opportunity because Habitat nationally is a great organization, but this one is very active and does a lot with the resources they have.”

Wilkerson is currently working on his fourth house through Habitat for Humanity, and said he has learned to be a better listener.

“What we tend to do, people in general, tend to project their culture on other individuals, and the Habitat homeowners have a different mindset about what they want to do with the property,” he said. “You need to listen to them to find out what they want to do with the resources we have.”

In addition to landscape work with Habitat, Wilkerson and his wife of 33 years Sandra Sistrunk are also involved in the local episcopal church. As a member with landscape expertise, Wilkerson was able to be the project manager on a new landscape design project for the front entrance of the church.

“People say Starkville has a lot of potential,” he said. “But it will have more potential if more people get involved.”