Family reflects on Habitat for Humanity efforts
In a modest green house on Owens Drive in Starkville, a family sits nestled together on a large couch, all with smiles on their faces.
While there are many reasons to be thankful, the walls surrounding them represent much more than brick and mortar - it’s their home.
This Christmas will be the second holiday season in a new house built by Habitat for Humanity for Kareema Gillon and her family.
Gillon, with her boyfriend Davione Warren, and children Korrine Gillon and Dorione Warren, moved into the house last December and have spent each day counting the blessings that led them to this point in their lives.
“I wanted my own home, so for anyone wanting to do (Habitat for Humanity) I would say go for it,” Gillon said. “It is a blessing in itself and you can see that if you keep holding on.”
The processes was not without its stressors and in the weeks and months leading up to the family moving in their new home, hours of work were spent by countless players to make a dream a reality.
A HOUSE BECOMES A HOME
“I have two friends, they also have Habitat homes, and they were telling me about it,” Gillon said. “We all work at McDonald’s, steady getting raises and increases, and one of them said ‘I think you should try Habitat,’ and I’ve never really heard of it.”
For a long time, Gillon had yearned to provide her family with the same stable home life she had growing up. Gillon was raised in the family home, given to her mother by her grandmother, which provided memories and a irreplaceable sense of home.
She also had apprehensions about putting down roots in Starkville.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay here, but I tried it anyways because I had been here during that time maybe three years, so I thought there was nothing here, with it being a school community, nothing is rent to own,” Gillon said. “Every house I looked for that I wanted, every one was in $500 to $600 range or something I didn’t feel like I would be able to pay and at the same time, I was staying in a trailer I was paying almost $500, so I said I know there has got to be a house somewhere.”
But with a slim slate of choices available in the local housing market, it became easy to get discouraged on the hunt for an affordable place to live.
“I’ve always grew up in a home, I had never been in a trailer or an apartment,” Gillon said. “For the amount of money I’ve been paying, I knew I could put that toward a mortgage.”
It was at that point Gillon decided to take a chance and apply for a home through the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity - a Christian organization that works to provide housing for those who qualify.
“As I talked to (Habitat for Humanity), they came out to visit the trailer I was staying in at that time,” Gillon said. “They noticed things like the hot water heater kept going in and out, the floorboards were unstable, it was very small for the amount of space we had, and all (the children’s) stuff was in boxes and totes.”
The application process, naturally, does not move quickly, as the organization does it due diligence to ensure each prospective homeowner is ready for the responsibility.
“I put the application in and a couple of months after that I started getting letters from Mr. Joel (Downey) about my check stubs and I started getting excited,” Gillon said. “After we did that, I had a meeting with the committee.”
It would be roughly a year after filing the application that Gillon received word she had been approved, but Habitat for Humanity put its own special touch on how she was given the news.
A representative from Habitat for Humanity contacted Gillon about looking at her steps, which she assumed was just another step in the application process. But in the back of her mind, Gillon said she had a hunch that she would be given the green light on her dream home.
“It’s all in how they present themselves and they want catch you and your kids at the same time,” she said. “She had the balloons and I was just crying and ecstatic, I really couldn’t get anything out from crying so much … It was the best day of my life, I promise you.”
Both Gillon and representatives from Habitat for Humanity emphasize, though, that this is not a charity. Rather, the hard work was just beginning for Gillon.
Every house in the Owens Community neighborhood where Gillon and her family lives have been built by Habitat for Humanity and work began immediately on the street’s newest addition after she was given the go-ahead.
During the process of building the home, Gillon said it gave her a sense of pride, especially for her daughter, as her children watched her and her boyfriend participate in building their home.
“For my daughter, I think the whole experience was breathtaking, it was for me, too,” Gillon said. “Seeing it from when it was concrete, to her, I think it was amazing to see her mother out here doing something that wasn’t so girly.”
As construction commenced on the house, the family moved from their small trailer into a home with another family. While they might have been cramped and sharing space, Gillon expressed her gratitude for everyone that helped her along the way and said the payoff for her children was worth it in the long run.
“It’s a hundred percent more exciting for (her daughter) because we actually got to put a little stitch of love into every wall, every doorknob,” Gillon said. “We could have moved to a home that was already built, but we built this one ourselves. She’s going to get what I felt, but plus more because we have pictures, they made a book from the first time we came out here.”
Gillon and her family are excited for their second holiday season in their home, but she insisted it would not be without the efforts of Habitat for Humanity and those in the community who pitched in.
A HAND UP
Starkville Area Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Joel Downey sang the praises of Gillon as he leaned back in his chair at the organization’s downtown central office in Starkville in a building it shares with the Greater Starkville Development Partnership.
While statistics and figures may be good for grant writing, Downey says the overall goal of the organization is to provide a “hand up, not a hand out,” for those in need.
“We are not just a little nonprofit that does houses,” Downey said. “We’re a developer in Starkville and even though we are run by volunteers, it’s a really good product. In the last year, our focus has been, we do two houses a year, a spring house and a fall house.”
Downey said homeowners are given a 20-year, interest-free mortgage and the homes can be foreclosed on, which underscores Habitat’s place as a mortgage company.
“People think our houses are cheap, not well made,” Downey said. “But we use professional electricians, plumber, HVAC, we don’t try to do that ourselves. We have 2x6 walls to make the insulation in the house stronger. We use Hardie Board siding and we do our building like I would for my house. They are nice houses, well-built houses.”
In terms of total cost for each home, which includes purchase of land and permits to closing fees, a three-bedroom house will cost between $85,000 and $90,000, with a four-bedroom running at about $95,000.
“We’ve done a couple of two bedrooms which were around $86,000, they only have one bathroom,” Downey said. “If you think about the Food Bank and I appreciate what they do, the same people go every week because they just don’t have enough to eat. We give a huge amount of capital to a person and we invest a huge amount into a person, but they’ve got to pull their weight. That’s part of being a homeowner. At the end they actually have an asset instead.”
He then said the houses appraise for roughly $120,000 and they end up selling them for around $90,000, which has the home owner beginning with $20,000 in equity. They must also sign a deed restriction that keeps them from refinancing for selling the house within a 10-year period.
The organization has been in existence since 1986 and in that time, 65 Habitat for Humanity houses have been built in Starkville.
Before he came to Starkville, Downey worked as a counselor for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Hattiesburg, before his wife got a job at Mississippi State University. He has since spent the last five years with Habitat for Humanity.
“I like to stress (how long the organization has been around) because for a nonprofit to be in business for over 30 years is pretty incredible,” Downey said. “The first half of that time was probably all volunteer, and we’re really proud of that.”
Downey said despite the typical plan for two houses a year, there has been a slightly different approach recently.
“We’ve done things a little bit different this year in that we have some really good candidates for our houses and so we have three ladies we thought were all good,” Downey said. “So we went ahead and picked all three and so we’ve got these ladies in sort of a waiting list, but now they are working on their sweat equity hours, they have to get 300 hours in.”
In addition to the hundreds of work hours required, those approved must also take three classes, with one being financial management.
Downey said the other classes can differ depending on what the person wants, be it nutrition or parenting, all of which are taught at Emerson Family School or the Mississippi State Extension Office.
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
The misconception may remain that Habitat for Humanity is in the business of giving houses away for free, but everything comes with a price tag and labor can be expensive when it doesn’t come in form of volunteers.
That’s where local churches and service organizations come in.
First United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian and St. Joseph Catholic Church are among some of the important players that make each Habitat home a reality.
“The smaller churches, Second Baptist Church, Longview Emmanuel, all of those churches like that do what they can,” Downey said. “Then when we have the Collegiate Challenge, it’s primarily our churches that provide the meals and entertainment for them and we wouldn’t have people coming back for 20 years if not for them.”
A large portion of funding also comes from Habitat’s Resale Store on 1632 N. Montgomery St., which is entirely volunteer run and donation driven. The store receives donations from the community and then sells the items to other community members, with all of the proceeds going to building materials for Habitat homes.
Volunteer Coordinator Through Americorps Vista Olivia Nutting said there are some misconceptions when people donate to the Resale Store, many think the donation is going to go into the Habitat home.
“In fact, it’s raising money to get new items for the home,” she said. “It’s open the first and third Saturday of every month, open for three hours and it kind of feels more like a garage sale.”
Nutting is one of two part-time Vista employees at Starkville Area Habitat for Humanity and said the feeling is more personal in Starkville compared to when she did work with Habitat in the Orlando area.
“I worked in Orlando, where it’s a larger affiliate, but this one is so much smaller and I was able to meet the homeowners and kind of build a relationship with everybody in the organization,” she said. “I’ve been here for a month so I have fresh eyes on it, but the way they continue to talk about the homeowners in such a positive way, on a first name basis and send them texts and stuff, it seems like it kind of builds more of a relationship than providing them with an affordable home and cutting ties once it’s set.”
Downey then described the bigger picture of Habitat’s mission, saying there are homeowner statistics that highlight lower drug use and children getting higher grades, but said Starkville offers a unique market for those in Habitat for Humanity homes.
“If you think about a kid that lives in an apartment building, probably moves two or three times while they are in elementary school, the good thing about Starkville is they are still going to same school,” Downey said. “If he’s not moving, his neighbors are moving and he never has that stability. We put our houses in places with other homeowners around, so it’s for the kids, they have that stability and for parents it’s a lot of relieved stressed.”
When asked what advice she would give to those interested in applying for a Habitat for Humanity home, Gillon simply said to give it a try.
“There is no downside for it,” Gillon said. “You put the application in, so they work with you. The answer isn’t no. I wanted my own home. I would say go for it, it is a blessing in itself and you can see that if you keep holding on.”