By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published February 5, 2016
ATLANTA—In honor of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, Atlanta Catholics and other volunteers dedicated eight Saturdays to build a Habitat for Humanity home for a mother and daughter.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory blessed the home on River Ridge Drive in southwest Atlanta Jan. 30, an unseasonably warm winter day.
Archbishop Gregory called the building of the house “a work of justice, mercy and charity.”
Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, with the generosity of an anonymous donor, raised the majority of funds needed to begin the Pope Francis build on Nov. 14, 2015.
Partners Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta joined as sponsors in addition to supplying volunteers. Seventeen other groups, including parishes, schools and other organizations, helped with the build or supplied lunch for crewmembers.
“I would just like to thank everyone who helped,” said Kiaira Dotson, the new homeowner.
Dotson, who is employed at a medical office, said she and her 2-year-old daughter, Genesis, plan to move into what will be their first home in early March.
The Atlanta Pope Francis build is one of a number that Habitat for Humanity organized nationwide in conjunction with the pope’s U.S. visit last September.
“I am particularly proud that this house is in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” said Archbishop Gregory.
The archbishop said shared collaboration and work made it possible for “this wonderful lady and her child to have this home.”
“Peace be with this house and all who live within,” said Archbishop Gregory.
So that the word of God will always remain in Dotson’s home and life, the archbishop presented her with a Bible on behalf of the Catholic people of the archdiocese.
“May it remain as a sign of our affection,” he said. “Welcome home.”
The archbishop led volunteers and those attending the blessing in prayer for the family and for the homeless to be able to obtain decent housing.
“We’re so proud to be able to be a part of Kiaira’s move into her new home,” said Deacon Bob Hauert, of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.
As part of the sponsoring groups, he spoke about the call of Christians to live the Gospel.
“That’s why we do this,” he said of the parish’s involvement in Habitat projects.
Homeowners put in sweat equity
Since 1983, the Atlanta Habitat chapter has served families by building or renovating more than 1,360 homes for 5,000 people.
Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital CEO Heather Dexter said joining the effort fits well with the hospital’s mission of providing care to all, including the underserved.
“We loved the idea of being involved when they brought it to us,” said Dexter. “We’re really organizations that had a great partnership opportunity.”
Families qualify to purchase Habitat homes by meeting requirements regarding steady income, having good credit, and being first-time homebuyers. The homebuyers invest 250 sweat-equity hours, either assisting in building their own home or working in Habitat offices, its warehouse or the nonprofit Habitat ReStore.
Once the home is built and the family moves in, they make affordable monthly mortgage payments at zero percent interest until they own the home. Habitat makes no profit on the sale.
The Pope Francis connection created much enthusiasm among volunteers and staff, said Atlanta Habitat CEO Lisa Gordon.
“It’s generated a lot of excitement. He’s providing global leadership,” said Gordon. “I’ve been a fan as well.”
In Atlanta, faith-based organizations are a big part of Habitat’s overall efforts to revitalize neighborhoods in addition to building new homes.
“They represent a third of our sponsors,” said Gordon about church groups.
Gordon, who came on board as CEO in July, is not new to revitalization work. She previously served as the chief operating officer for The Atlanta Beltline, Inc., where she led development of a strategic plan, recreational trails, parks, transportation, and affordable housing.
One goal of Atlanta Habitat is to create neighborhoods or subdivisions by locating parcels together, to create a sense of camaraderie and community, and safe places for children to be outdoors.
Often these neighborhoods are in challenged areas and new homes can be a “tipping point” in a more positive direction.
The new homeowners often come from generations of living in public housing but being able to work for a Habitat house changes the future for them and their children.
Gordon finds the dedications special and loves when homeowners close after 12 months of leasing the property.
Her favorite thing to see is when a homeowner pays off their mortgage. In 2015, 21 Atlanta residents paid off the mortgages on their Habitat homes.
“I love that the best. Now they have an asset,” said Gordon.
Part of Habitat’s work is to provide training on maintaining homes and budget coaching.
“We have financial literacy programs. They really get to put it in action,” added Gordon.
From the front porch of the River Ridge home, Gordon read aloud the words of Pope Francis when visiting the Dono Di Maria Homeless Shelter in 2013: “The ‘home’ is a crucial place in life, where life grows and can be fulfilled, because it is a place in which every person learns to receive love and to give love.”
Dotson received a variety of gifts during the blessing of the home, including bread from Habitat board member Dana Halberg.
“It’s very good luck to bring bread,” said Halberg.
“We are excited about our homeowner. She has done a lot to get here,” said Gordon.
Students helped with build
In the hours leading up to the noon blessing, volunteers were working on adding shutters and landscaping chores.
Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School students, who helped on the first day of the build, returned to do sod work and dig a hole for the mailbox.
Students from Notre Dame Academy in Duluth had joined the project by serving lunch on one of the build days. They brought ham and cheese sandwiches, drinks and protein snacks for the workers.
The students returned to see the completed house.
“It was a good atmosphere,” said Faith Mtabo, 14. “It felt like we were doing something for the community.”
Tressa Fanoe, IHM parishioner for three years, coordinated the volunteer team for the parish.
The build tied into studies of Catholic social teaching at the church. Fanoe said although many different groups participated in construction, the separation of groups wasn’t noticeable.
“Everyone was working together. New friendships were formed,” said Fanoe.
She noted one doesn’t have to have experience to participate as Habitat staff members provide training and safety information.
Aaron Sibley, Habitat house leader, oversees construction from “floor to roof,” working with both homeowners and volunteers.
Sibley said he tries to pre-build as much as possible during the week to be ready for the volunteer laborers who come on the weekends.
“It’s my goal during the week to keep these folks busy,” he said.
Sibley, who came to Habitat from corporate engineering, finds the work rewarding.
Because of the Pope Francis link, more individual volunteers were on hand.
“It’s got a lot of people involved who’ve never picked up a hammer,” he said.
A Methodist, Sibley believes Pope Francis to be a “voice for justice.”
Sibley said he thinks it a rare quality of the pope’s to be able to inspire and encourage work for others.
“I think he’s wonderful. He really seems to care for his fellowman,” he said.