Building Hope: The Don and Mira Ball Story

By Leslie Potter | 10/05/18 10:00 AM

Don and Mira Ball, founders of Ball Homes, have had a profound impact on Central Kentucky. Through their business, they’ve established residential neighborhoods in Lexington and beyond. Their success in business allowed them to pursue philanthropic interests centered on helping people in the community.

Don Ball passed away in March of 2018. “The Don and Mira Ball Story” offers a look back at the incredible life Don and Mira shared and how their devotion to charitable giving and community service made a positive difference in Kentucky.
 

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The Beginning of Ball Homes
Don and Mira met when they were students at the University of Kentucky. They married soon after, and started their business buying vacant houses, fixing them up, and selling them.
“You could move in one and get it fixed up, put furniture in it, it would look better,” Mira explains. “It was just a way for us to get started. [Don] was able to establish some credit, and he decided to build on his own…Don wanted to build an affordable house that the policemen and firemen could live in because they had to live in the city of Lexington. It just sort of grew from there.”

Today, Ball Homes has built thousands of homes in neighborhoods in and around Lexington, Louisville, and Knoxville, Tennessee, with a focus on building houses for people of all backgrounds and income levels.

“Seeing my dad and his siblings work with my grandparents and make one of the most fundamental American dreams come true for thousands of families — owning a home and building a home — it’s been incredible to see how they’ve worked together over the years,” says Rachel Albright, Don and Mira’s granddaughter. “I can remember a lot of lunches after church, conversations about a development or something that was going on and it’s always kind of been at the forefront. But it’s also been what’s allowed my grandfather to take a step away and be a philanthropist and really try to impact other communities.”

State Representative Ball
Don had been interested in politics since his high school days, and he was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly in the 1960s.

“Don Ball was a moderate, he was middle of the road,” says Terry McBrayer, who served with Don in the Kentucky House of Representatives. “He was kind of where America wants all of us to be today: in the middle. [The 1960s were] a very progressive time in the history of Kentucky…Civil rights legislation and all of those important pieces of legislation that have survived to this date were adopted and passed in the mid-60s under the leadership of Don Ball and others.”

“His politics don’t get in the way when a bill comes out like the civil rights bill or any other bill that is a people bill,” says Cecil Dunn, Executive Director of the Hope Center. “He comes down on the right side every time when it comes to people.”

Don used his knowledge of housing and his experience in politics to help secure funding for low-income housing in the community.

“In…affordable housing, your margin for error is very small, so you need a guy like Don Ball who understands the business and who can steer you away from some of the mistakes that you would make as a novice that could be very devastating to a project,” says P.G. Peeples, Sr., President and CEO of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County.

“We bought the first units that were on Chestnut Street 35 years ago….We just bought up dilapidated ones and converted them and made them affordable and put them on the market. As time went on, we began a focus of building houses new from the ground up. Don helped me and that put us in position where we were able to build 50-plus units that we’ve done using affordable housing tax credits. That history from 35 years ago to present, that’s what we have done right at $30 million worth of affordable real estate in the urban core for Lexington. It removes blighted units, brings back neighborhoods to be livable and attractive.”

A Commitment to Education and Health
“My grandmother has been so passionate about education,” says Albright. “I think that goes back to her upbringing and her time as a teacher and recognizing how important education is as a foundation.”

Mira’s knowledge and skill in education and business made her an in-demand leader across organizations. She was the first woman to serve as chairman of the Lexington Chamber. From there, she was recruited to the board of Midway College (now Midway University).
“I learned a lot about education by being there, about the ins and outs of student loans, about the federal government and everything that goes along with all that,” says Mira. “It was a good learning position for me when it came time that I was able to be on the University of Kentucky board.”

“It took about three years before she was elected as the chairman of the board,” says Dr. Lee Todd, Jr., former president of UK. “The school has just celebrated its 150th anniversary recently and out of 150 years, they’ve had one woman sit in that chair and she was excellent. She knew the finance area. She certainly knew the construction area.”
It was during Mira’s time as chair that UK HealthCare underwent a massive expansion of the medical center. Her support helped the hospital grow during the recession in the early 2000s when other medical facilities were cutting back.

“I thought that the University of Kentucky had to have a nationally recognized referral center to make sure that Kentuckians, no matter how complex their problems, could get taken care of in Kentucky,” says Dr. Michael Karpf, former chief of UK HealthCare. “Mira very quickly understood that it would be an important resource. She understood it from the perspective of someone who was serving the community and she understood it in a very direct kind of way in terms of family healthcare needs. She was extraordinarily supportive of that.”

The Dignity of All People
“Don and Mira used their leadership skills and their gifts to help others who needed a second, third, or fourth chance,” says Dr. Robert Baker, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. “They were big believers in that. They were big believers in grace. They really wanted people to have an opportunity to become self-sufficient, and to have a purpose in their own lives.”

“When I was governor, I appointed Don to the Kentucky housing corporation,” says former Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher. “The Kentucky housing corporation is set up to provide funding for low-income families. Don chaired that board for me and he wanted to serve there…because he was on a mission and his mission was to address chronic homelessness and addiction.”

Don worked with funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, community development block grants, and the Department of Corrections to make plans for 11 recovery centers across the state, modeled after the Hope Center in Lexington and the Healing Place in Louisville.

“We started looking at some of the things that Governor Fletcher had instituted, and one of the great things was this partnership that he had formed with Don Ball to build the Recovery Kentucky centers,” says former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear. “Don agreed to continue that work. [Former Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear and he were made co-chairs of the Recovery Kentucky task force.] For the next eight years, we built residential centers all around the state which are obviously very sorely needed. It was a great example of how politics is supposed to work. You see something good and it’s not about the people who are involved, it’s about the people you’re trying to help.”

“Right now, there are 2,000 folks who have been in the captivity of addiction and are going through those recovery centers here in the Commonwealth,” says Fletcher. “Almost 3,600 to 4,000 a year will go through that. They have the best statistics of recovery of any program in the country.”

The One Parent Scholar House is another example of Don and Mira’s commitment to offering assistance to Kentuckians in need. Formerly known as Virginia Place, the facility includes 56 apartment units for single parents who are full-time college students.
“We provide housing here on site and a child development center,” says Mirsada Simic, Program Director. “They can go to school and achieve their graduation and self-sufficiency and be really good productive citizens of this society. That’s what we want.”

Donamire Farms
“Right after we got married, we knew that eventually we hoped to be able to have some acreage and live on a farm because we both grew up on farms,” Mira remembers. “So when we heard about 50 acres that were available, we decided that we would try to buy that and build on it.”
The Balls started out with a small herd of cattle, but ultimately decided to go in a different direction. They traded their cows for one Thoroughbred broodmare.
“We started out and bought one or two and had some that we raced and just gradually built up some horses that could run a little bit,” says Mira. “We still enjoy it today. There’s not anything that’s much more enjoyable than watching a really good horse run.”
Just like they did with their knowledge of housing and construction, Don and Mira used their connections in the racing industry to assist people in need.
“The Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund is a fund that takes uncashed pari-mutuel tickets and puts it in a fund that helps people who are working on the backside or that are connected with Thoroughbred racing and are having problems,” says Nick Nicholson, former president of Keeneland Race Course. “A catastrophic event in their life could mean bankruptcy. You’re living from check to check and you can’t afford a hospital stay. Or a family member dies. It’s a huge issue in addition to all the sadness.

“Don spent a lot of his time and emotional energy and intellectual energy working for people like that to enhance their life,” Nicholson continues. “There was no financial reward for it. It was just who he was. Don Ball became our representative on that fund and he expanded it in a way that has helped so many thousands of people through the years. That never would have happened were it not for Don Ball.”

Donamire Farm assists other organizations by providing a venue for charity events. Don and Mira built a permanent tent in one of their fields where groups can hold fundraising events without paying the typical costs associated with renting a facility.

“I think that my grandparents see the farm as a place that they can really share with others and especially organizations that are doing good,” says Albright. “Being able to open it up at no cost to those organizations to have fundraisers and bring people together and inspire community I think is kind of the greatest gift of the farm. I think that they do that because they really believe in giving back and using the resources that they have to make a difference.”