Fitchburg Star – 6/12/2015
Building a new life
Future homeowners reflect on Fitchburg house projects
Unified Newspaper Group
Wearing red, pinstriped overalls, her hair in braids and a pair of glasses, longtime research scientist Katharine Hoffmann of Paoli seemed an unlikely person to be wielding a cordless drill in the Agora parking lot this spring.
Yet she was among hundreds of other employees from Promega Corporation, Terso Solutions and Fitchburg Center who swapped out their computers, lab coats and business attire for tools and blue Habitat for Humanity shirts at the mobile construction site May 29. As sponsors, the group of volunteers took part in a house panel build alongside future homeowners Hassan and Maryam Benani.
“I’m glad to be out here,” Hoffmann said. “I wanted to learn and help some neighbors out at the same time.”
After the interior and exterior walls were built, volunteers used colorful markers to scrawl welcoming wishes for the family into the wood as a reminder of their ongoing support. Then, the walls were loaded onto a truck to be erected near Dunn’s Marsh in the Renaissance on the Park neighborhood, where Habitat for Humanity of Dane County already has a presence.
A second house, sponsored by Blackhawk Church of Fitchburg, will also be built in that neighborhood for Rachel Turner and her son. Habitat homes will eventually make up 40 percent of the houses there.
A few miles away, on Rimrock Road south of Briarpatch Youth Services, Thrivent Financial is sponsoring a third house for Vicki Orth and her two children. Volunteers broke ground on that site in April, and shingles are already on the roof.
These families, who have been set back because of financial or medical reasons, are eager to get out of their cramped and pricey rentals next spring and take pride in a home with a yard they can afford to call their own.
Some Habitat volunteers are regulars, such as a group of cabinetmakers in their 80s and 90s who have been involved with every house built in Dane County since 1987. However, most people from schools, faith communities, civic groups or businesses show up to help without any background in construction, and that’s more than just OK – it’s encouraged.
Full-time site leader Chris Warfield said it is a rewarding challenge to teach new volunteers how to use the tools and build homes from the ground up. In his experience, it is actually women who seem to get the most joy from the work.
“You get a Sawzall in their hand (and) they just get a charge out of it,” he said.
Habitat depends on volunteers to help keep services affordable for its partner families. Eligible families pay monthly mortgage payments on a no-interest loan and contribute 325-375 hours of “sweat equity” in the building of their homes.
There will be plenty of opportunities for people who want to volunteer locally, since Habitat has purchased 26 lots in the Renaissance on the Park neighborhood to develop over the next five years. But homes are not the only things being built.
Habitat CEO Valerie Johnson said volunteers are also in the process of constructing streets and sewers this summer to establish the infrastructure there, which is unusual for the nonprofit.
“Very few Habitats have the ability and the resources,” she said. “There’s only a few around the country that have done this, and this will actually be the third time that we have acted as a developer.”
So far, the response from the eight families already living in the ROP neighborhood has been positive, especially since houses are close to the bus lines, parks and Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
“It’s literally across the ravine from Allied Drive, so it’s going to be a real boost to the community,” she said, reflecting on Habitat’s tagline of “building homes, community and hope.”
One of the ways Habitat builds community is by stabilizing “challenged neighborhoods,” which make up 54 percent of those Habitat serves. Johnson said this is accomplished by having homeowners who are invested and care about their communities.
“We have numerous examples of parents who have told us their children excelled in school after they moved into their home,” Johnson said, citing statistics of kids who have better health outcomes and are more likely to stay in school and go to college. “Having a safe and secure place to call home does make a difference.”
While Habitat serves communities throughout Dane County, Fitchburg seems to work well, since it’s centrally located for volunteers to come and work. Johnson said many of the families there are also good, stable renters “who want to move up to homeownership that just need that little extra help that Habitat offers.”
Generally, Habitat homeowners will pay less in mortgage payments than they were previously paying in rent.
“They have a place that is theirs and they have pride in it, they’ve helped build it, they become better neighbors,” she said, adding that volunteers, sponsors and families are all part of the community. “We try to bring different types of people together in a positive way.”
With hammers pounding in the distance, Hassan and Maryam Benani took a break from the panel build to talk with the Star under the shade of the Agora Pavilion.
Hassan moved from Morocco to the United States in 1998, first to New York and then to Wisconsin. He was studying at Madison Area Technical College when he suffered a heart attack in 2009. As an uninsured student, he was stuck with thousands of dollars in medical bills that forced him to file for bankruptcy and shattered his dreams of someday owning a home.
Although he hesitated telling his parents about his financial and health situation so they wouldn’t worry, he took a flight back home to visit later that year. The trip proved to be successful, as he met his wife, Maryam.
After the couple married and returned to Madison, they welcomed two children, Salma in 2011 and Rayan in 2013, but were running out of room in their two-bedroom apartment, where landlords were frequently changing.
They heard about Habitat for Humanity a few years ago through a friend and decided to attend a meeting and apply. When Hassan received the call at work that they had been accepted, he was ecstatic and immediately called his wife to share the good news.
“It’s definitely a life-changing event,” he said. “Now, seeing the walls go up, it’s really happening.”
Once the walls are up, it’s up to the new homeowners to properly maintain the property, and Habitat is there to help. Habitat provides formal classes on how to be a good neighbor and care for a yard as well as financial capability training.
During visits to the house site in the Renaissance on the Park neighborhood, Hassan discovered that one of his friends actually lives nearby. The family, and their pet fish, will move into their home next spring.
Also living in the neighborhood will be Rachel Turner and her 8-year-old son Cameron.
Her mother tried applying for a Habitat home in the past and was not accepted, but that didn’t deter Rachel from giving it a shot. She got her credit report and application materials in order, and it paid off. When she got the news that she was accepted, she felt “overwhelmed, happy and proud.”
Rachel had been renting the same apartment for the last nine years because the price of houses in the area was daunting. But, with a son who has asthma and neighbors who smoke, the combination wasn’t working.
“Growing up as a child, I lived in three different states. I could never call one place my real home,” Rachel wrote on Habitat’s website. “To give my child that opportunity to have a home is great.”
Cameron is excited about the new home because a park with a basketball court is nearby, but the move is bittersweet as he will leave school friends when he changes districts in middle school.
Rachel is glad her son will be able to walk to the Boys and Girls Club or the playground and feel safe in the community while enjoying himself outside. She is also thankful for the volunteers and Habitat staff who answer her questions, especially about finances.
Vicki Orth has already walked inside her unfinished Habitat for Humanity home on Rimrock Road with her 14-year-old daughter, Alexa, and 12-year-old son, Devon. They have even picked out their rooms and the type of flooring each will have.
With a garage, insulation and backyard, the new house will be a huge step up from their current living space in a trailer home on the east side of Madison.
Vicki looks forward to gardening, and the kids are even more excited because they will finally be able to have a cat and dog. Devon will be able to walk to Badger Rock Middle School in less than five minutes, and the bus stop for La Follette High School is just across the street for Alexa.
The family found out just days before Christmas that the home would be theirs, and they drove to the site to start envisioning it, despite snow still on the ground. Things were looking up.
Then, in April, Vicki started having back pains, but she thought they were just from lifting items at her job at Copps in Monona. The pain worsened in early May, and she ended up having emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder.
The results showed cancer. Vicki is going through chemotherapy for three months before a portion of her liver will need to be removed to stop the cancer from spreading further.
“But the doctors said they are optimistic, and I’m being optimistic,” Vicki said. “I’ve got too much to live for. I’ve got my kids, my family, my friends (and) a new house.”
Because of the chemo, Vicki is on medical leave from work and cannot volunteer at the dusty construction site. Habitat has made an exception for her sweat equity hours and is allowing her to volunteer at the office instead. The house should be completed by winter, and Habitat may let the family move in early to accommodate their situation.
Habitat will hold a kick off celebration at the family’s home, 2898 Rimrock Road, at 10 a.m. Wednesday, June 17.
The Orths will be introduced, and representatives from Thrivent Financial and Habitat for Humanity will speak. Refreshments will be provided.