Almost two years ago, 31-year-old Michelle Hayes read a flyer circulating in the projects where she lives in Yonkers with her four daughters.
"Own your own home with no down payment, and the rent is guaranteed under $500," the flyer said, Hayes recalls. "When I saw that, I thought there was a catch to it. But I thought, 'Well, let me go to the meeting'."
The meeting was held by the Yonkers Habitat for Humanity, which was offering residents of the School Street Projects the chance to get involved in its program. Since 1976, Habitat has helped thousands of needy families around the world build good homes.
Hayes liked what she heard, and filled out an application. She then went through a rigorous evaluation process during which Habitat for Humanity representatives visited her home, checked her credit, checked that she was a good employee, and that she paid her rent on time. To further prove her earnestness, Hayes was required to put in 12 hours of her time to work on existing Habitat homebuilding projects.
Everything went through, and Hayes was accepted. But there was more work to be done: instead of a down payment, Habitat for Humanity requires its families to give 500 hours of what they call "sweat equity" toward building their home and the homes of their future neighbors.
The task seemed daunting to Hayes, especially since she had only five hours of time every Saturday that she could devote to the process.
"I kept saying, '500 hours? I'm never going to finish.' I was sitting there, thinking, 'How am I going to finish?'" Hayes says.
However, Habitat allows families to bring their own volunteers, whose time can be counted toward the collective "sweat equity" of a home. Hayes brought her eldest daughter, 15-year-old Shakeyma, who in turn brought her high school friends, to help out on demolition work at the Yonkers site.
With the extra help, the hours quickly added up, and at last, Hayes met her 500 hours.
She was placed on the list for the next available home, which happened to be the one designed by Florida architect Ed Binkley. Hayes' home is the first of three other Habitat houses to be built in a neighborhood of older buildings.
Remembering the volunteers who helped her out, and seeing the concern of other families anxious to come closer to their own goals, Hayes is still helping her future neighbors build homes.
"I told Habitat that even though I finished my hours, I'm still going to continue," Hayes says.
"A lot of people came. They didn't have to help us. We got volunteers from all over - from Jersey, from all over, coming just to help us out."
That kind of devotion to a neighborhood is at the heart of what Habitat for Humanity embraces. Whether the person involved in construction is initially a family member or a volunteer, their investment of hard work toward the improvement of an arecreates a feeling of community.
"The gift isn't always the house...The gift is having that family be part of a volunteer's life, too. Typically, 'those people' in 'those neighborhoods' become a part of my family or the volunteer's family, and communities are built," says Jim Killoran, the director of Yonkers Habitat for Humanity.
Killoran says the program is aimed at building not only good homes, but better futures.
"By helping somone move out of a project, you're changing not only that immediate family -- you're changing that whole generation's life," Killoran says. "You're changing their point of reference for how they think about life."
In a more stable environment, Killoran says, families can plan their dreams; they can save money for a college education or for a new business.
For Hayes, her immediate goal - to bring her daughters out of the projects - has been met. Now, other dreams are within reach.
"I wanted a good home, somewhere where my children can play and nobody's throwing things out of the window; where I don't have to worry about them riding their bikes in the street; now they have a back yard they can ride and play in," Hayes says.
Her young daughters - Shakeyma, Doniqua, 9, Shideara, 6, and Ebony, 5 - are also thrilled about the home. But they have their own plans. For four children, they told their mother, they must have four dogs.
"I was like, 'Oh gosh - four dogs?' I don't even know if I want one!" Hayes says. "They've already got the names picked out. They want a doghouse for each dog. I'm like, 'Let us get into our house first, then we'll talk about doghouses and all that'."
Hayes says that she has been asked to serve on the Families Selection Committee of the Yonkers Habitat for Humanity -- which chose her as a homeowner -- after she is settled into her new house.
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