Heart of Home

Conclusion of Habitat for Humanity Builders Blitz turns dreams to reality for 16 families

The Sawyer holds up an enlarged key, as a symbol to the key to their new home, in celebration. Deidre D. Sawyer, 33, who found herself in a shelter, after a combination of circumstances 13 years ago, now has a stable life set up for her daughter. © Adam R. Cole 2008

A contractor prepares landscaping on one of the Blitz homes. In just five days, 16 homes were built from the ground up. © Adam R. Cole 2008

Many had seen their lives rocked in a major way in a way that a tornado turns houses to rubble. Their stories spoke of suffering the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, domestic abuse, or some other tragic circumstances that let them scrambling to figure out how to make ends meet, and for some, how just to survive.

Those that didn’t come head on with tragedy were in no way free and clear from trouble; they instead faced a marathon life of just getting by, a barely baseline level of living that left no room for the comforts that so many Americans enjoy.

Many had once been in a shelter at least one time or another. Others had made do in trailer park accommodations for years, living in cramped conditions, always appreciative of what they had, yet knowing that there was a horizon line of better living.

Perseverance was a universal thread amidst their struggles; each exhibited a drive to achieve a greater quality of life. Such perseverance had already worked wonders in their lives, taking so many out of despair and into a life filled with at least the basic necessities.

Unanimously, they put their faith and trust in God, whom each knew would never let them down and was to thank for taking them as far as they were. In their hearts, they knew that their struggles would be rewarded, that their perseverance and faith would eventually lead to something truly worth holding on to.

Though they shared varying life trials, they shared one great triumph: home ownership.

Sixteen Virginia-based families, along with hundreds of other families throughout the country, experienced a watershed life moment at the beginning of June. It was a life-changer kind of milestone, one that brought tears of joy flooding from their eyes and heartfelt “thank you’s” from their lips. The Lord—through the giving hands of Habitat for Humanity and partnering homebuilder companies—had rewarded them greatly, each of them gaining the keys to a brand new home built as part of a five-day home building blitz, fittingly titled Habit for Humanity Homebuilders Blitz 2008.

“To God be the glory!” Gerri L. Norman, 52, one the new home owners, shouted from the top of her lungs. She repeated it two more times, getting louder with each praise to above.

Gone now are the days of renting in troubled neighborhoods, of public housing living, of cramped trailer homes.

Moments after the official ceremony, where every one of the families received symbolic giant golden keys, the kids were already playing in the front yard, tossing donated sports gear and riding bicycles. Family members enthusiastically gave tours. Though no furniture had arrived yet, the families sat on just-laid carpet in their new living rooms, basking in the sweet, sweet moment.

“The joy and excitement…it’s overwhelming,” said Sonja D. Robinson, 42, whose daughter Jada, 7, was one of the ones hopping on a bike. Robinson had been living in a mobile home in Allewhite since 1995, doing custodial work for Allewhite County schools. “This really is life changing.”

Habitat for Humanity is a faith-based non-profit organization that provides homes for low-income families. Utilizing volunteers and contributions by homebuilding companies, homes are sold—not given away—to qualifying families at mortgage levels that are affordable for their income bracket.

Every two years, Habitat for Humanity conducts a blitz throughout the country and in select countries globally. This year’s blitz in Virginia was constructed in the neighborhood of Suffolk, coincidentally the same town the tornado struck in May, though the new homes were completed in a much different part of the city.

As part of an expansive program, selected homeowners have to go through a set of classes on life skills and financial management, as well as contribute ‘sweat equity’ to their new home which equates to volunteering in the building of other Habitat homes (which are built year-round).

This year’s blitz in Suffolk, the nation’s largest at 16 homes, was described by one home contractor as a great convergence of random acts of kindness.

Sixteen different homebuilders, along with masses of volunteers form the community and military services, haling from the greater Norfolk-Suffolk-Virginia Beach area came together to put their faith and their heart for humanity in action. In total, 2,500 volunteers and 32,500 man hours were utilized to bring the 16 homes to life.

What started as empty lots when the blitz began Monday morning suddenly had foundation, suddenly had walls, suddenly had insulation, suddenly had carpet, suddenly had landscape. When the sun closed on Friday, the last day of the blitz, the homes were ready to be turned over to the families.

“There is something in giving back…in helping people help themselves,” said Joe E. Ketchum, vice president with Associated Contracting Services. “And there’s nothing more you can give somebody than a new home.”

Said another contractor, Ron W. Lehman, 39, with Lehman Construction. “God asks us to give our best. God works in ways we can’t always comprehend. He’ll put people in our lives…and it’s up to us to decide and take action how we are going to affect and impact that life He has placed before us.”

The end result was more than apparent during the official day of dedication, Saturday, June 7. Emotions of happiness was overflowing.

“Who would have thought, that something this beautiful could come to be reality” said Steve Richy, on the porch of his new home, reclining ever-so at ease on the houses’s frame.

But it is reality for him and so many others. The Richys never even considered the idea of Habitat until members of their church fellowship group, Freedom Fellowship, suggested it; in fact, placed it before them as if God Himself had spoke to one of the fellowship group members to instill in the minds and hearts of the Richys. The Richys had been living in a mobile home previously, with two of their three children, living in a world with virtually no privacy, with no doors, no closets, and where the only bathroom was at the end of the ‘master bedroom’ where Steve and his wife Jenny slept.

Because of the cramped conditions, the Richys marriage suffered but did not break. They continued to have faith in the Lord, knowing confidently that He would provide for them in His time.

“[The Bible] says that Jesus will prepare a place for us [in heaven] but the Lord has already made a place for us here, on earth,” said Steve. “If heaven is going to be anything like this…wow.”

Faith preserved Megan Horton, when her husband suddenly left her, forcing her to find work to support herself and her three kids. She now works as a teacher for STOP; her three girls (names here) have plans to paint their rooms pink, a show of creativity and ownership they never had before.

Horton’s house was given a name by the builders, who made a mantel and placed it above the entrance of the house. It reads FAITH.

Faith is what preserved Jan Bell, who claims to be lucky just to be alive. Domestic abuse shook her life in April 2005, leaving badly bruised on the outside and on the inside. So distraught and having no idea how to support herself, she literally lost everything, her possessions and foreclosed on the house she was living in. At a shelter, she nearly gave up all hope, For Kids, but decided to stick it out in the program, to learn to grow, to rebuild. She would, and became a bus driver for the Norfolk Public Schools. Her new home is a culmination of a new life. All she wants to do now is pay it forward.

“Heaven on earth,” said Bell. “I am a testament that you can change your life, that with faith in God, and a desire to better who you are, everything is possible.”

Faith preserved Gerri Norman, who lost her husband to cancer and underwent a similar enduring journey to support herself, and a nephew and a niece she would take custody of one year after her husband’s death.

Faith preserved, Debbie Clay’s whose experience was almost mirror-image of Norman’s and the others, losing a husband, inheriting grandson and granddaughter, finding a way to move forward.

Faith preserved Deidre D. Sawyer, 33, who found herself in a shelter, after a combination of circumstances 13 years ago. She found work as a maid at a hotel, enough to support her young son. Her trust in the Lord, she would get picked up by the state’s Family Self Sufficiency program, providing an important structure to her life; in turn, she would lbe hired by a the Salvation Army as a social services worker. The final blessing was selection to become one of the homeowners in the Blitz.

So many stories. So many testimonies of faith and the victories of perseverance through that faith.

Though the sixteen families sometimes had nothing more than a roof and a bed as a shelter, they had a solid foundation—in God.

Rev. Ralph Richardson III, of Little Grove Baptist Church, pastor of the church that is within walking distance of the new homes, captured the moment with these words: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those that labor, labor in vain.”

The results of that faith and their labors in life are now evident, not only in the houses they now own, but the bounty of smiles, the gaggles of laughter, the overwhelming feeling of being blessed.