Not long after taking over as chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus, E.J. Thomas said he was approached at a function for the nonprofit organization by a young man who introduced himself as a senior at Kent State University.

He told Thomas that his mother had moved into a home built under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity when he was 8 years old, signaling the end of frequently moving from place to place, and sometimes for him from school to school. At last, with the family settled down, he could study and do well in school, well enough to get the grades that permitted him to go on to college.

Thomas, who became CEO of the local Habitat affiliate in 2004, said that the importance of homeownership for children had simply not occurred to him until that very moment.

“That really hit home for me,” he said.

Thomas, an eight-term state representative for the 27th district in north Columbus, was the guest speaker at last week’s Clintonville Area Chamber of Commerce Business Networking Luncheon, held at the Clintonville Woman’s Club.

“There is life after term limits,” the former 20-year resident of Clintonville quipped as he began his remarks.

Thomas said that he initially intended to serve as CEO of Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus on an interim basis.

“I fell in love with the mission,” he added.

Habitat for Humanity International, a worldwide Christian housing ministry, was founded in 1976 by successful businessman Millard Fuller, who died in February 2009 at the age of 74.

One of the most common misconceptions about Habitat, which no one in the Clintonville chamber audience admitted believing last week, is that the program gives houses away, according to Thomas.

In fact, he said, the people who obtain Habitat for Humanity homes must apply and qualify. They also have to put in 250 hours of work on the home and pay off a mortgage at zero percent.

“We are a hand up, not a handout,” Thomas said. “I think that appeals to the best of human nature.”

Now a resident of New Albany, Thomas said that people who must put in what’s often called “sweat equity” appreciate their homes more and take better care of them.

Habitat for Humanity has begun to shift its focus somewhat, Thomas said, from concentrating on the number of houses built to instead emphasizing the number of families helped and to fixing up existing homes as opposed to only building new ones.

Thomas also said that he will be serving on a committee with a Habitat official from Florida aimed at providing greater help to veterans, many of whom he said are “dire need” of housing assistance, home repairs or home weatherization.

On any given night, according to Thomas, between 16 and 20 percent of the homeless on the streets of America are veterans.

The Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus CEO spoke about the local affiliate’s retail operation at 3140 Westerville Road, two miles south of Morse Road. ReStore, which is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., offers donated and gently used items, primarily construction and building materials.

Thomas said ReStore brought in $1.3 million last year, completely covering the administrative costs for the Columbus operation.

He announced the Habitat would be opening a second ReStore, this one on the West Side, after the first of the year.

“We think there’s a lot of potential out there,” Thomas said.

Finally, the Habitat for Humanity executive told his audience that the local affiliate will be completing 22 homes in 2011, a record.