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Moving In

For Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County, homes are where the heart is

By Ellen Bicheler

Sherri Lee can't jump for joy--she has degenerative arthritis. So when she receives the keys to her new home from Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County on Sept. 18, she'll have her two sons do the jumping for her. The Lees, along with the seven-member family of Juan Ordaz, are the first to benefit from the nonprofit organization's campaign to build 20 new homes in Sonoma County by 2010.

"I feel very happy that we're getting the opportunity to own a home," says Ordaz. "Habitat is a really good organization, because so many people contribute to the houses."

The Ordaz family is moving from a small, two-bedroom apartment to a spacious four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home. From its front porch with its raisin-colored trim to the hardwood floors to the bedrooms painted with the children's choice of colors, the house is a work of collective art and community.

Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County is part of the larger Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI). Since its inception in 1976, HFHI has built more than 175,000 homes, sheltering more than 900,000 people in over 100 countries by building a house every 27 minutes somewhere in the world with an overall goal of sheltering 1 million people by the end of next year.

The Santa Rosa Habitat affiliate originated in 1984 and has concentrated on refurbishing existing structures; so far, this chapter has rehabilitated 18 homes. Having constructed two homes from scratch in 1991 and 2000, the local branch has renewed its commitment to building. The Lee and Ordaz homes are the first Habitat has constructed in its new Kali subdivision of southwest Santa Rosa, one among 11 new multihome sites.

"The dedication of these two homes is a milestone for Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County," says executive director Kathy Tonkovich. "It is a major accomplishment in our commitment to becoming continuous builders of affordable housing.

The faith-based organization's mission is ambitious: to provide a decent place to live for everyone in Sonoma County. To achieve this, it partners with local construction contractors and other businesses who donate labor, material and money to build the new homes. More than 5,000 volunteer hours have been logged since January, according to coordinator Amy Lemmer.

Painting contractor Stephen Black was initially reluctant to relinquish a Saturday to paint for Habitat. But once there, Black painted the whole Ordaz house in a day with the help of a volunteer. "The whole spirit of the volunteer work is the giving," he says. "It was fabulous to be able to contribute my talent."

"It keeps me alive and gives me a purpose," says Brent Billings, who describes himself as an "old carpenter." Pointing to the Ordaz's hall, he asks proudly, "See those hardwood floors? I taught two women to lay the floor. They did it in five hours."

Kevin Gilleran, from Gilleran Energy Management, is part of Habitat's "green team," ensuring the houses employ sustainable building methods wherever possible. "We put tankless water heaters and whole house fans in both of these houses," Gilleran says.

Larger businesses such as Cisco Systems, Coldwell Banker and the personal banking software developer Intuit contribute volunteer building teams to the job sites. In addition, families selected by Habitat must contribute 500 hours of sweat equity to the project.

Sherri Lee has put most of her sweat equity into office work. She's spent years in substandard housing or in a state of homelessness because of her disability and low income. Habitat is installing an elevator chair lift in the home to facilitate her ability to go upstairs and downstairs. Regardless of the subdivision's inherited name, which honors the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction, Lee has dubbed her new home the "good karma house."

"These are wonderful people," she says. "I hope they can continue to grow for the community; I'll continue to volunteer for them." The Ordaz and Lee families were the first families chosen from the over 150 applications. Qualifications include the need for adequate housing and the ability to repay a no-interest loan. Applicants must make 25 to 50 percent of the median Sonoma County income.

"We have had tremendous support from the construction industry, the faith community, local businesses and the community at large," says Tonkovich.

But most importantly, she smiles, "two more families in our community will be in safe, decent homes."

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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