Habitat House Means New Life for Matriarchal Family
Historically, women have been classified as homemakers — meaning they maintained a house provided by a man.
Victoria Lopez expands that classification: She donned hard hat and work gloves to help “make” a bright new home for her six children.
Assisting Lopez was a crew of women, part of Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build.
On March 2, the single mother, her children, friends, fellow crew members and Habitat staff gathered to dedicate the completed house. This emotional ceremony culminated Victoria’s tortuous journey to Victory Lane in Aberdeen, part of the Midway Gardens project.
Then, on March 9 — under a warm, cloudless blue sky — Victoria, her mother and siblings, her children and many volunteers carried the family’s possessions into the 1,400-square foot, five-bedroom, centrally air conditioned, landscaped, energy-efficient house with covered front porch, side deck, laundry room, trendy black appliances, mini-blinds, custom-colored paint, jumbo bathrooms, a storage shed and wood-grain laminate floors.
Lopez stood at the door, directing traffic.
“Happy chaos — this is surreal,” she said with a big smile. “It means a new life, a happier life, so exciting, especially for my children, who will be closer to our church and can attended activities there.”
Habitat executive director Elizabeth Cox confirms: “I see the success (of obtaining suitable housing) for the parent. But it’s the kids who benefit, long-term, from a safer neighborhood. They do better in school and aren’t as likely to get into trouble.”
The Lopez children already excel at school. In addition, Lopez, the primary wage-earner, has divided housework among them, including care for 8-year-old Elias, who has Down syndrome.
• • • • •
A new chapter in women’s history has been written.
Less than a century ago, a woman surviving a tumultuous marriage and divorce would, most likely, be forced to move in with a relative, get a menial job and hope for the best. The children of large families might be separated. No such thing would happen to her, Lopez vowed.
“She wanted to establish stability for her family,” Cox says. “Having a home makes a huge difference.”
Lopez grew up and married in New Orleans. As a child and young woman she was energetic, helpful and organized, her mother, Gail Kemmerly, says.
“Victoria’s always had faith in the Lord, that he would take her out of the desert,” says Kemmerly.
An employment opportunity brought the Lopez family to North Carolina. They lived in a series of apartments and mobile homes. The divorce in 2008 left her in an unheated, non-air- conditioned double-wide in Vass. Utility bills for space heaters and window units ran $350 monthly, in addition to $750 rent.
A fire caused by the heaters made Victoria realize she must find safe, economical housing for her children — two girls and four boys (one set of twins), ranging in age from 8 to 17. She supplemented a job in the school cafeteria with waitressing.
“I cried all the time … I saw no future for us,” Lopez recalls.
Depressed and in financial shambles, the words of a hymn surfaced: “strength for today, bright hope for tomorrow.”
This became her mantra.
Lopez learned of Habitat during a divorce recovery group at Grace Church in Southern Pines. The faith-based, nonprofit initiative has built half a million homes worldwide. The Sandhills branch helped make home ownership possible for 200 families since 1988. Twenty-two homes are under construction at Midway Gardens — but only one by Women Build.
Her first application was turned down because she had not resided in the area long enough.
“But she was sincere and forthcoming — I could tell she had been through a lot,” says Ken Rahal, a retiree and Habitat volunteer who shepherded Lopez through the process right up to moving day, when he appeared with a stack of pizza boxes for the helpers.
The all-woman crew, including Victoria and older daughter Gabriella, volunteers and other Habitat homeowners (who must contribute 300 sweat-equity hours) began construction on Sept. 8. A few guys pitched in with the heaviest work but, as resource acquisitions volunteer staff member Terry Gaar says, “They had to be brave and sensitive.”
Volunteer coordinator Judie Wiggins adds: “There’s such an atmosphere of inclusiveness. The women come in with no skills and leave with skills they can use in their own homes.”
Construction manager Russell Walters, part of Habitat’s paid staff, praised the women’s effort: “We picked a deserving family for this home. This is truly community.”
Maurice Holland Jr., a lifelong Midway resident, adds, “This is our future, to infuse children into the neighborhood” — a neighborhood that, like Lopez, has experienced tough times.
“When they told us the story of what (Victoria) had been through, and how resilient and positive she was, I knew it was the perfect fit,” he says
• • • • •
The floorplan was adapted from several Habitat models; Victoria wanted each child, if they chose, to have a room of his/her own. The girls were especially thrilled.
“I’ll have a closet for my clothes … and I’ll get to pick out the color of my room,” 15-year-old Abigail said during construction in December.
In a second phase to commence soon, Victoria’s bedroom will be expanded for sleeping and play space for Elias — plus a third bathroom — totaling an additional 625 square feet.
Construction progressed smoothly (plumbing and electrical work subcontracted), but weather conditions delayed paving Victory Lane, therefore occupancy.
“It’s been hard to wait,” Abigail says. “I’m not the most patient person in the world.”
During this period of change when some women busy themselves selecting wallpaper and drapes, Victoria established a one-woman residential and office cleaning business.
• • • • •
The wait is over. More than 50 well-wishers crammed into the living room for the dedication, a ritual at all Habitat homes. Some brought gifts: a toaster and other kitchen gadgets, a bookshelf and books from the Literacy Council, a quilt from the Sandhills Quilters Guild, a painting from Artists League of the Sandhills, a birdhouse from Boy Scout Troop 223, a trivet from the Girl Scout Troop 245, an American flag to hang from the porch from the Daughters of the American Revolution, and a Bible from Habitat, which imposes no religious requirement on recipients.
The Rev. Ryan Peterson invoked the Scriptures:
“Make the Lord your dwelling place …”
Lopez, moved almost to tears, responded: “This was a long, hard journey. This house wouldn’t have been built except for the glory of God. Habitat and their people have touched my life and the lives of my children. What’s important is the love and support of these people.”
She concluded: “I feel like the richest woman in the world.”
Maybe not the richest, but the figures are looking good:
Advance Cleaning, Victoria’s business, is doing well, although where she finds the strength nobody knows.
The house with appliances, ceiling fans and a full sprinkler system cost about $85,000 to build. Federal grants covered Midway Gardens infrastructure. Down payment: $600. Monthly payments, which include a no-interest 25-year-mortgage and taxes: about $350. Utilities, based on energy-efficient features: undetermined as yet, but predicted low.
Intangibles: Kids on the block. Hanging out on the porch. Soccer in the street of the quiet cul-de-sac. The shiny newness. Proximity to church, shopping and Lopez’ clients. Continuing guidance from Habitat volunteers.
“Victoria has become like a daughter to me,” Rahal says. “Her children play with my grandchildren.”
Most important, perhaps, a feeling of accomplishment.
“At the closing, when I signed my name and got that key …” Lopez shakes her honey-blonde mane, lifts her eyes heavenward and whispers, “amazing.”
Son Aaron, 13, standing in his bright blue bedroom, invokes another word: “Cool.”
But, amid the “happy chaos” of moving day, something was missing until Gail Kemmerly, who had driven from Louisiana with her son and dog, hung a homemade wreath of artificial spring flowers on her daughter’s new front door.
Big hug. Big smile.
“Now, I’m home,” Victoria said.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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