A home of their own
The path to homeownership through Habitat for Humanity isn’t one you take alone. The community and friendships formed last long after construction ends.
For Pam Crowe, it all started with a simple question as she waited for choir rehearsal to begin in the lower level of St. Paul. Sitting next to her was Belinda Holbrook, a long-time volunteer at Habitat for Humanity. “Would you ever be interested in volunteering as a mentor for a Habitat family?”
Pam was familiar with the work of the organization and thought the concept sounded interesting. She said she’d take time to give it some thought, but by the end of rehearsal that evening she had her answer: “Sure! Let’s try it!”
As she would come to learn firsthand, a mentor is a dedicated support person to an individual or family in the process of obtaining a Habitat home. “We walk alongside them every step of the way,” Pam says. There’s a lot to navigate for a first-time homeowner. So a mentor is there to answer questions, help problem solve, and offer encouragement throughout what is often a multi-year process before the family finally moves into their new home.
Pam has partnered with three families since first volunteering in January 2016, and is currently a mentor to Godja Adjafi. She and Godja first met in January of 2020 and then, because of the pandemic, didn’t see each other face-to-face again until March of 2021. They texted and talked on the phone. Pam tried to offer encouragement as construction nearly came to a halt last year. “We really lost a whole year of being connected,” Pam says, “so it’s been really exciting to see her house begin to come together this summer.”
Godja immigrated to the Quad Cities from the African country of Togo 11 years ago and has two young sons, Joel and Jeff. When she learned her Habitat application was accepted, she was thrilled — and overwhelmed. So she’s turned to Pam for guidance and support along the way. “Pam’s help, it’s a gift,” Godja says.
We’re there to encourage
Belinda Holbrook’s connection to Habitat has spanned several decades and a variety of interests. She, too, initially connected with the organization following a friend’s invitation. Since first volunteering in 1995, she has served as a family mentor, participated in the family selection committee, helped build houses from start to finish, and volunteered at the Habitat ReStore.
Belinda is currently serving as a mentor to Marcia Ellingsworth, who also happens to be a St. Paul member. Marcia has worked as a special education para at Truman Elementary School for the last 15 years. She looked into applying for a Habitat home years ago but didn’t meet all the criteria. After a few people nudged her to consider applying once again, she’s grateful to now be just a few months away from owning her own home.
Marcia and Belinda knew of each other at church, but they’ve become well acquainted over the last few years since being paired up through Habitat.
“Belinda just cares about people,” Marcia says. “She makes sure I know what I’m supposed to be doing and takes good care of me. She’s nurturing and caring and wants a positive outcome for my family.”
As a mentor, Belinda sees her primary role as a cheerleader. “We’re there to encourage, to answer questions as families walk through the process of owning their own home.” She enjoys the excitement of helping a family pick out siding colors or choosing what flooring or cabinetry will complete the space.
One of the greatest gifts Belinda sees in the program is the educational component. Each family is required to take part in classes that provide critical knowledge about being a homeowner — all sorts of topics including budgeting, understanding escrow, predatory loan practices, and how to maintain your home.
Affordable — not free — homes
One of the most common misconceptions about Habitat for Humanity is that the organization simply gives away homes to those in need. But anyone connected to Habitat will be quick to tell you that these homes are anything but free. Instead, each house is offered with a no-interest loan to make mortgage payments much more affordable. Habitat works closely with each family to ensure no mortgage payment is more than 30 percent of their monthly income.
Future homeowners don’t simply receive a house, either. There are a number of expectations of their own involvement. Each homeowner first must apply to be accepted into the program, meeting certain income and need-based requirements, and be willing to attend educational classes. In addition, every family puts in hundreds of “sweat equity” hours, volunteering to help build their home or others currently under construction.
Most Habitat applicants have little construction experience starting out. But they are present on the worksite nearly every Saturday their schedule allows, willing to learn new skills, and excited to watch their house come together.
Along the way, both homeowners and mentors will tell you they’re greatly changed by this experience. “I’m a better listener now,” Pam says of being a mentor. “It’s helped me understand different cultures and backgrounds.”
For Godja and Marcia, the gift of homeownership is almost hard to put into words. “It means independence. Home is where I get to live with my kids,” Godja says.
“I’m just thankful to stop renting and own a home at an affordable price,” Marcia adds. “Owning a home means safety. Security. Comfort. Not having to worry about my surroundings.”
Marcia and Godja will soon be neighbors along 6th Street in Davenport, with a view of the Mississippi River from their bedroom windows. Among the many people who will be there to celebrate their home dedications later this year will be their mentors, Belinda and Pam.
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that helps families build and improve places to call home. They believe affordable housing plays a critical role in strong and stable communities. The Quad Cities Habitat chapter has built more than 100 homes, including those constructed with St. Paul funding and labor.
In 2021, St. Paul supported Habitat for Humanity with $24,000, and is sponsoring the construction of Godja’s house.