As Habitat for Humanity International celebrates 25 years, local groups keep going strong.
By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Gunshots, not birds and crickets, were the sounds Kim Harris heard outside the walls of the Bassett Street home where she lived with her three youngest children.
But now, moving a few blocks away, Harris hears only peace and is hopeful the family will be more sheltered from the threat of violence.
The family is relocating from a rental home into a new home Harris owns. The family built the new place from the ground up -- with the help of Habitat for Humanity of Mahoning County, a group that uses donations and volunteers to build homes for those in need.
"I look forward to being able to sit out here and just enjoy the peacefulness," said Harris, 45, standing on her porch enclosed by a painted white wooden rail. "I think the front porch will be my place."
The three-bedroom house is home to Harris, her 10-year-old daughter Tamarah and her twin 17-year-old sons Keith and Kevin Coleman. And Harris, who works at the Hampton Inn in Austintown, said she hopes others will feel welcome there too.
"It's real beautiful here, and I'm proud to live in it," added Keith, an Ursuline High school senior. "I feel it's also a real blessing because my mother was always talking about getting a new house. It's a way for her to start over again ... a new life. It's a beautiful way to start."
Harris will finance the $35,000 home by making $250 monthly payments, with no interest, to Habitat. Habitat places the payments in a fund used to build more homes.
Bill Farragher, president of the Mahoning County group, said the local chapter was established in 1989 by Paul Carpenter, a United Church of Christ minister. The group disbanded in the mid-1990s and was resurrected in 1997 and 1998. Farragher said the group has built or renovated about 15 houses in the county, eight since its rebirth. Five more are in planning stages.
One of many: Harris' home is also one of more than 115,000 houses Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the globe have built or renovated since it was founded in 1976.
Of those homes, 1,271 are in Ohio; 749 are in Pennsylvania.
The international group is celebrating its 25th year with a global celebration Sept. 10-16 in Indianapolis. Members hope to see 100,000 more homes built, not in the next 25 years, but by the end of 2005, said Kevin Campbell, associate director for Habitat's U.S. affiliates.
Founded in Georgia by Millard and Linda Fuller, Habitat for Humanity International has helped 500,000 people move into decent homes in more than 2,000 communities and 79 countries.
Habitat builds simple homes that cost from a few thousand dollars in developing countries to an average of $46,600 in the United States. Homeowners help build the structures and receive no-interest mortgages from seven to 30 years. Millard Fuller calls the volunteer work a "hand up, not a hand out" for families.
Getting involved: His red suspenders framing a black Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, volunteer Bob Titus of Howland Township said he became hooked on Habitat while building a home for a family of Mexican immigrants living in crowded quarters in California. Maria Alejandra was 8.
"I was walking up the stairs, cleaning things up. She was looking out the window saying, 'This is my bedroom.' Needless to say, I choked up. Something like that, it's hard not to," said Titus, a "tough guy" who works as an industrial mechanic at the General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant.
Titus, 58, will represent the Trumbull County chapter at the anniversary celebration. A highlight will be a visit from former President Carter, a long-time Habitat volunteer.
"I can't see anybody not having a decent home," said Titus, a three-year volunteer.
Titus is now helping a Warren family build a three-bedroom home on Maryland Street in the city. Nicole Porterfield, her husband, Michael, and their two children had rented a home before.
"This is great. This is like a blessing in disguise," said Nicole, stopping in at the home on a recent evening to help volunteers. "There's no words to really explain it, to be able to own your own home and build it from the ground up."
Boosts neighborhoods: The Trumbull County chapter was formed in 1985 and is nearing completion of its 17th house, said chapter president George Sparacino.
While four members were once the backbone of the group, the number of "regulars" has grown to about nine. Besides houses and construction skills, Sparacino said, the work helps to build friendships.
Homeowners often leave an impoverished culture for one of stability, making an investment in their communities and staying there, Campbell said.
"Habitat is about ownership, which, I think, translates into stability and enhances the strength of neighborhoods," Campbell said. "It's long-term stability for a family. It gives them things others, a lot of us, take for granted."
Habitat projects also inspire "collateral work" as neighboring property owners see new construction and improve their own properties.
"We've made a difference in a lot of neighborhoods," Sparacino said. "Neighbors thanked us profusely for landscaping and beautifying their neighborhood."
Habitat has begun more ambitious projects -- building subdivisions -- with $25 million in federal Housing and Urban Development grants since 1996, Campbell said. The federal funds are used to buy land and establish an infrastructure so homes can be built.
Grateful: In Youngstown, Harris stands in her kitchen, fully stocked with appliances, and says she's pleased to have a home where her children can be proud to bring their friends. And her big yard should provide plenty of play room for her five grandchildren.
But the most important asset, she said, is stability.
"It was really a blessing. ... I will really be forever grateful," she said. "I just want to be an asset to the neighborhood."