Until Saturday, all I really knew about Habitat for Humanity is that Jimmy Carter was involved in it. And that was all I needed to know, I’m ashamed to say.
You see, I’ve always had a certain ambivalence when it comes to the former president. On one hand, he is a Southerner. On the other, he is a Democrat. On one hand, he was a man of integrity. On the other, he was a less-than-forceful leader.
Even so, I much admired Carter’s genuine compassion. So when I think of Carter now, I see him in blue jeans swinging a hammer at a two-by-four.
So Saturday was an education for me. Until then, I figured Habitat for Humanity built houses and gave them to homeless, helpless, clueless folks who might or might not show any real appreciation.
But then I met Leslie Miller.
Miller is a single working mom with four kids — Erica, 17, twins Alex and Drew, 15, and Garrison, 9.
Miller, 38, is not looking for a freebie. She’s looking for a fair chance.
And that’s what Habitat for Humanity is all about.
The misconceptions fell away pretty quickly as I watched volunteers begin framing the walls for the fourbedroom, two-bath home in east central Tempe.
First off, Miller isn’t getting a free home. Like everybody else, she’ll have a mortgage to pay. It will cost Habitat for Humanity about $120,000 to build the house. She is responsible for a down payment and mortgage payments on that amount. When finished, the home will be appraised at about $200,000, a price Miller could not afford.
But while work on the house was just beginning Saturday, Miller’s journey toward home-ownership began three years ago, when she enrolled in a program called Homeward Bound, which helps people put aside money to buy a house by offering affordable rental housing.
Miller also had to make sure she got her credit in order, too. Habitat for Humanity carefully screens families. To qualify, you must have good credit, money for a down payment and a consistent work history.
The home is being built through a combined effort of Habitat for Humanity, Valley of the Sun, New Town Development Corp., Tempe and two real estate groups — the Southeast Valley Regional Association of Realtors and Arizona Regional MLS, which provided most of the money for materials.
Then, of course, there are the volunteers. Typically, 800 people participate in some way or another over the 15 weeks it takes to build the houses. If you want to sign on, visit habitatforhumanity.org.
The buzz of saws and the echo of hammers may have been an interruption to the quiet of a Saturday morning to some of the folks in the neighborhood, but to Leslie Miller and her family, it was the soundtrack to a dream.
“Security,” Miller said. “That’s what this means to us. It means my kids will always have a place to go home to.”
You don’t have to be a former president to appreciate that.