Thursday, May 24, 2007

What Habitat Volunteers Create

Today I had the greatest experience of my time in New Orleans, and it wasn't about a home, but instead about moment. I was working with a family on erecting roof trusses when we were called down to attending a home dedication- when the keys are officially passed to a new homeowner. We hopped in the back of a truck and rode to the home with the sun wavering between peeking out or hiding behind clouds.

We arrive on Clouet Street at the new home of Patrina Johnson Peters. She's a 44 year-old divorcee and disabled mother of two. Patrina grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, not far from her new home, where she lived her entire life until Katrina hit. She earned her GED in 1979, graduated from Cameron College in 1982 with a certificate for general clerical work, and then graduated from Hair Tech in 1986, where she then taught for a number of years in addition to working as a janitor for Xavier University. Her son Damond, who wants to be a basketball player (he is already close to my height), was there, as was her daughter and her beautiful 1 month-old granddaughter in addition to her parents and other friends.

The sun hid again as the ceremony started with a welcome from Jim Pate, Executive Director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. Brief remarks were then given by two employees of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant, which sponsored the home. One employee, a tough-looking guy, recited a short poem he had written for the occasion and shared a heart-felt hug with Patrina. Habitat employees then presented Patrina with gifts of bread, wine, and a toolbox, after which she was handed the key to her new home. As Patrina took the key, the sun came out again behind the crowd and glinted off her new housekey, raised as high as her arm would take it. "Words just can't explain..." she stammered as tears streamed down her cheeks, "how I feel."

The crowd applauded and was invited inside to view the home and welcome Patrina and her family. There, her pastor lead a prayer. Patrina and her mother followed it with a hymn, and Patrina went on to thank more individuals- her family, a couple of close friends, and Caitlin- the Habitat employee who had led her home's construction. There was more hugging, and crying, and thanking- it was a joyful mood.

Months full of weeks, and weeks of days, and days full of hours went into Patrina's home by herself, her family, and hundreds of volunteers. People came and went endlessly, putting in their share of nails, adding their bit of paint, or covering Patrina's roof with shingles, whether or not they ever met her or even knew her name. Perhaps only a few were able to witness the final event, but every one can claim their share in creating a event that helped shape Patrina's life, New Orleans' recovery, and our nation's sense of community.

Those trusses weren't quite as heavy in the afternoon.

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