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Built with love and prayers

“Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer said to Caesar (by all accounts, including Shakespeare) but it is not advice I heard, nor will heed ever.

It was on March 15 (the Ides of March), on an unseasonably warm late-Winter evening, when John Vick, from the Fatherhood Initiative, called me and said, “I’m happy to be the one to tell you that the Habitat for Humanity committee selected you and your family to be our partner family this year.”

When Vick called, I was picking up my kids and as we walked home, they could see tears in my eyes.

“What’s wrong, daddy?” my eldest asked.

“Nothing honey,” I replied. “Daddy’s happy.” And I gave them the news along with a round of tight hugs.

The rest of the night was like Christmas, our home filled with joy, light and excitement. Questions came quick and frequently: “Where will the house be?” “Will we have friends there?” “Can I have my own room?” “Can I paint my room lime green?”

I barely slept that night, imagining that what I was going through was what it must be like to win the lottery.

Unlike the lottery, however, I was not being given anything except an opportunity to own a home. Having written an article on Habitat for Humanity about a year before, I was aware that I would be expected to not only put in 100 hours of sweat equity of my own but to convince friends and family to give an additional 300 hours. More than that, I knew I would have a mortgage to pay, just like any other homeowner.

However, I also knew that a large, global family existed to give a low-income family the chance to own a home, to break the chains of renting and have an investment in their community — and life.

Founded in 1976, Habitat has built or rehabilitated over 200,000 throughout the world and is the fifth largest builder of houses in the United States.

Locally, Habitat builds one or two houses in Archuleta County each year. Primarily using volunteer labor to build the houses, the actual cost of these houses is about $65,000 — all of which must be repaid by the Partner Family which must also contribute 400-500 hours of sweat equity. Habitat efforts in the county over the past 15 years have provided quality housing for over 50 children.

Habitat for Humanity, I’d learned from writing my previous article, helps low-income families finance the dream of owning a home through donations, grants and acquiring low-interest financing.

Client families that would not normally be able to qualify for bank loans nor have the ability to come up with a large down payment are assisted in a number of ways, not just financially. The prospective homeowners are guided through the mountain of paperwork necessary for lenders and other legalities. Likewise, families are expected to a variety of classes teaching skills for first-time homeowners, handling finances and general life-skills.

I liked to think that, with a couple of college degrees, the courses were redundant. However, college had apparently not prepared me for home ownership; certainly, those degrees had not prepared me with sufficient income for buying a house.

Other than mandating various classes for educating the new homeowner, sweat equity is the hallmark of what is required a Habitat for Humanity client family. Before the house is finished, I am expected to have completed 100 hours of sweat equity — hours spent building the house (despite my admittedly impoverished construction skills) — as well as 300 hours expected from friends and family.

The 100 hours expected from me is easy; despite expectations from work, I’ve managed to complete about a third of my hours in less than two months of construction (and with about four months before the house is completed). With no local family and friends difficult to peg for volunteer work, the 300 hours remains problematic. Anyone willing to go out to the construction site at 63 Grenadier Place and drop my name, by all means, please step up to the plate.

Of course, sweat equity hours aren’t the only thing needed for the house. Habitat for Humanity will accept any building materials — tile, wood flooring, counter tops, trim, etc. — that can be applied to construction of the house (a nice wood-burning stove would be gladly accepted) or future house construction.

And, in this struggling economy, donations for Habitat are down somewhat. According to Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Cindi Galabota, while individual donations are down just a little, grant-funding is down significantly, making total contributions down 30-35 percent.

While Habitat prefers that monetary donations are not given with strings attached, donors can specify that where their donations can go and, donations made to the local Habitat affiliate will stay in Archuleta County.

Surprisingly, the process of application and acceptance was quick. I picked up Habitat for Humanity’s application in October from the local Department of Human Services’ office. Having already applied for a home with Colorado Housing, Inc., and told by a caseworker that the process for a CHI home could take more than a year, I didn’t have high expectations for a Habitat home.

In late November, I received a call from Vick asking me where my Habitat application was, if I’d turned it in. I confessed that, in the crush of job responsibilities and adjusting to raising three young children on my own, the application had been filled out but remained stashed in the sun visor of my car and I’d neglected to submit it.

Vick made the trip to my desk at The SUN and picked up the application himself.

A few weeks later, I received a call from Habitat, scheduling me for an initial interview. On a sunny December afternoon, I met briefly with several Habitat board members, discussing my job (where, how long I’d been employed), how it was I came to raise my children on my own, and my current financial situation (my bills, debts and the state of my credit).

In late January, Habitat scheduled a home visit with me, assessing my need for a house. The two ladies (Habitat board members) apparently recognized that, with my three children and me crammed into a small three-bedroom apartment (two daughters sharing a room, with one daughter nearing adolescence), we were worthy candidates for a Habitat home.

In late February, I was asked to submit a credit report (my bank had graciously generated a thorough report from all three main credit reporting agencies) as well as other financial accreditation: Pay check stubs, rental lease agreement and other documents.

A few weeks later, Vick’s call came, telling me that Habitat had decided to partner with me on the house.

Several weeks later, I met Galabota and Stephany Bouchier at Lake Hatcher to look at the lot. Mid-April, about two-and-a-half feet of snow covered the area where we’d be building the house.

“How are we going to build a house there, Daddy?” my oldest daughter asked.

But build we have, as volunteers locally and nationally have stepped up to provide affordable housing in Archuleta County. House 20 (the Habitat home previous to mine) will be officially dedicated at 326 Cimarrona Circle on Sunday, Aug. 8, at 2:30 p.m. as the latest family partnered with Habitat accepts their keys and a blessing on their new home. House 21 (my home) is scheduled for completion and dedication in early November.

On a breezy Sunday afternoon in Mid-May, several Habitat volunteers joined my family out at the lot to bless the land where my house would built. After joining hands for a brief prayer, I put a spade into the ground and placed a shovelful of dirt from the land into a five-gallon bucket. My children added more dirt, as did several volunteers, until the bucket was nearly full.

In early June, the build site was excavated and I joined several Americorps volunteers from Fort Lewis College along with local Habitat volunteers in building forms for the foundation. What I found during my first day on the job was a friendly sense of camaraderie in building something with love and caring.

By early July, we were joined by “Care-a-vanners” — Habitat volunteers from throughout the U.S. who travel across the county in RVs to various Habitat build sites, devoting their time and effort to building Habitat homes. Like an Amish barn-raising, where a community comes together to build something for a neighbor, a dozen or so volunteers quickly framed and roofed my house with amazing speed.

As one wall went up, I noticed that someone had written into the foundation, “Built with love and prayers, 7/1/10.”

It is that love and those prayers that make me so fortunate. It is the dedication of those volunteers and the generosity of Habitat for Humanity that is providing me with an opportunity to own not just a house but a home — a place where my children will be raised and can feel safe. It is an opportunity where I can feel completely invested in the community that I have chosen to plant my roots.

Monetary and material donations can be made by calling the local Habitat for Humanity office at 264-6960. Anyone wishing to volunteer (either at my behest or in general) can also call the local Habitat office and ask for Volunteer Coordinator Patty Brown. Or, volunteers can show up at 63 Grenadier Place on either Thursday or Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m.. and ask for Steve Koneman (Habitat construction supervisor).

More information is available at www.habitatcolorado.org/Archuleta/index.htm.

jim@pagosasun.com