Friday, October 14, 2011

On moving day, hearts of new homeowners brim

Published on: September 22, 2011
Waldwick – The Habitat for Humanity condominiums on Wyckoff Avenue that were recently completed represent more than just a place to live for the four families who moved into them last week.
As they settled in, organizing and personalizing their new spaces, members of the families recalled their journeys from the moment they were accepted into the Habitat program — more than two years before, for some — to walking through the doors of homes of their own.
Each family was subjected to financial checks by both the Habitat organization and the state Council on Affordable Housing to enter the program. They were required to work alongside volunteers to achieve 400 hours of what Habitat calls “sweat equity” — hammering, tiling and painting inside and out.
On Sept. 10, their accomplishments were celebrated by borough and state officials, with the families receiving keys to their homes. The ceremony was followed by a three-hour picnic during which tours of the finished product were conducted.
The house – which the borough purchased for $260,000 and then sold to Habitat for $1 in 2009 – has two two-bedroom units; one three-bedroom unit and one four-bedroom unit.
Although the task of transforming the 1790s Dutch Colonial into four condominiums has ended, it marks a new beginning for the D’Annibales, Eliases, Herreras and Moores.
‘It’s overwhelming’
Before moving to 101 Wyckoff Ave., Sandra D’Anniable and her five children — Jamie, Alyssa, Grace, Rose and Kody — lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Waldwick.
Sandra slept on a twin bed with 6-year-old Kody on a daybed at her feet, although most nights, she said, he curled up next to her.
They ate meals perched on barstools at a round, white table with a surface only big enough to accommodate two.
“It didn’t really hit me until this week,” Sandra said, sitting in her new kitchen, running her hands over a kitchen table large enough to seat her whole family. A watermelon and other groceries cluttered the counters.
“It’s just been overwhelming. I kept saying, ‘It’s never going to happen,’ and then finally, like in the last two weeks, I said, ‘I’ll believe it when my foot’s in the door.’ So now that my foot is in the door, it’s overwhelming.”
As she showed off the house on Sept. 13, she said she felt like “one of the luckiest people in the world” as rents in Bergen County have kept multiplying and its affordable housing shrinking.
When asked what she could do now that she couldn’t do before, she answered, “Cook.”
She says she plans to host Thanksgiving dinner, now that she has an oven in which to roast the turkey.
She also was able to buy her first queen-size bed.
Each child has their own space, too. Kody’s room is blue and filled with dinosaur toys, the twins Grace and Rose share a room with bunk beds, and college students Jamie and Alyssa also share a room.
“It’s deceiving,” Sandra said about the size of the house. “It’s pretty big, but for me it’s huge.”
‘They changed my life’
Zaghara Lunette had a tough time studying for school in the cramped space she shared in Hackensack with her mother, Ibis Blain Elias, and grandmother, Floricelda Elias.
“We were really on top of each other,” Lunette said.
The 23-year-old is studying to be a teacher at Bergen Community College, but the noise from the TV in the family’s one-bedroom apartment often made it hard to concentrate.
The trio came to the United States from Cuba 10 years ago in what Lunette said was the result of her grandmother’s “ridiculous luck.”
“In Cuba, there are only two [visa] lotteries to get out of the country,” she explained. “It is unheard of for someone to win both of them — but she did.”
She also credits her grandmother’s luck for inclusion in the Habitat for Humanity program after years of searching for such an opportunity.
For her mother and grandmother, Lunette said, living in bigger quarters means not having to constantly dig into boxes for their things or pack away winter clothes. And despite the larger space, there will be more family bonding.
“I’m excited for the kitchen because we like to have our meals together and cook and my cat is going to be excited to have a place to play,” Lunette said. She intends to turn her own bedroom into an artist’s sanctuary.
“I don’t consider myself a musician yet, I’m a student of music, but for the longest time I didn’t have room to spread out, so with my [new] room it’s going to be, ‘What creative thing can I do with it?’ Whether it’s paint or practice dancing – the one thing you won’t notice is a bed. I’ll have a Japanese-style mattress.” Lunette, whose birthday was Sept. 12, said the spirit of the thousands of volunteers who worked on the house has been the best birthday present.
“Every time I go through the house I see the faces of people that worked in it,” she said. “[It’s one thing] to imagine the kindness of people but it’s a much different thing when you actually see the kindness of people and how much a little bit of kindness can do.”
“They changed my life,” Lunette continued. “Yes, they gave me a home, but the biggest thing they gave us is not physical. It’s in the perspective and wisdom that everybody shared there with us.”
‘This is home’
Tyrone and Patricia Herrera first heard about the Habitat house through an ad in the paper.
“It was hard to believe,” Tyrone said of the price it listed. “But if we were interested, [the ad said] they would be giving a two-day seminar in Hackensack.” That was in November 2009. A year later, the family got a call “welcoming us to the Habitat family.”
Tyrone and Patricia are moving with their three children — Henry, 18, Tara, 13, and Kelsea, 4 — from Tyrone’s mother’s house in Mahwah, where Henry’s room was a 9-foot by 4-foot storage space just big enough for a bed.
“I can feel free to walk around and watch TV if I wanted to without bothering anyone,” Tyrone said of the family’s new space. “I feel a sense of comfort. It’s like I’m actually in a resort. It’s like, when you go off on a vacation and stay in a hotel – it sort of feels that way. It feels like you have to go back to reality eventually, but this is it. This is home. I feel elated.”
And already, life has changed for the better.
Because Tyrone works late, it was always a struggle to find time to talk with his son without disturbing anyone else.
“We actually got to sit down in our living room and talk about our day, which we never got to do before,” Tyrone said. “The girls were upstairs and we were downstairs, me and my son just talking. We didn’t feel pressured.”
While Tara is still adjusting to life in a new school, Tyrone said the borough has been extremely welcoming.
“We felt like celebrities,” Tyrone said. “I don’t think many people can say they moved into a new house and had such a reunion of neighbors. It was touching.”
‘A giant hug’
The long process of finding out whether her family would qualify to live in the Habitat house felt even longer to Cheryl Moore, as she had to drive past it every day on her way to work at The Forum School, watching the construction progress on a house she didn’t know if she would own.
But the payoff was worth it for Cheryl and her daughters, Rachel and Emily, who have left the apartment they had rented in Ramsey for the last 17 years to live in the borough.
“To me this whole experience has been a God-given gift,” Moore said. “Everything lined up and everything is working out so perfectly, beyond what I ever could have imagined.”
Now, Cheryl will be able to walk to work, Emily will be able to walk to Waldwick High School, and Rachel will drive to Ramsey to finish out her senior year of high school.
The cost savings of living in low-income housing also means Cheryl will be able to get car insurance for her daughters, who have been able to drive but couldn’t because of not having insurance, and she will be able to get a phone plan for her family that doesn’t involve counting minutes.
She’s also excited about the spacious back yard that the families will share, and trying her hand at grilling for the first time.
“We’ve all been working on each other’s units for the past year side by side,” Moore said of her new neighbors. “There is such a strong sense of community and genuine love for each other.”
For her, the connection with strangers has been the best part of this process.
“I’m thrilled to get a home and I think that’s totally exciting and wonderful, but even better than that and more fantastic that that is the whole experience of meeting the people who volunteered,” Moore said. “Thousands of volunteers have given time and energy and their skills and talents to invest in the future for me and my girls. It’s like getting a giant hug.”
To say “thank you,” Cheryl said she plans to volunteer on future Habitat programs in Bergen County and in other counties.
“They set the bar high for me,” Cheryl said. “I’m constantly reminded of giving and thinking of others. It’s a big debt to try and pay back.”

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