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“My name is Alba Contreras Marchena, and I would like to tell you about my joy”

June 20, 2010

COSTA RICA – Alba Contreras Marchena had been living in a make-shift, one room house with her three children. At times, such as when her youngest son had a kidney infection, they went to stay with her mother or sister. But most nights they slept three or four to a bed, drawing a plastic tarp over themselves and their belongings in order to keep out the rain.

For several years, the Contreras and eight other families in their community had steadfastly applied for government housing programs, but their monthly income was either too low or too sporadic to qualify.

Alba’s first impressions of Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica are recorded in a diary that she kept throughout her experience of finally being able to build her new home.

It starts out, “My name is Alba Contreras Marchena, and I would like to tell you about my joy.”

In the diary, Alba talks about one of her first meetings with Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica—people who she later describes as having become something like family. “They visited the shacks where we live,” she says. “But they also sat with us, and advised us to fight for our dreams. Don Rafa, the National Director of Habitat, told us that it doesn’t matter what storm God sends. The calm will come.”

The house—two bedrooms, a living/dining room and small patio—was built in just eight days, three months after Alba and her family had applied for credit with Habitat for Humanity. Throughout construction, Alba and other “Habitat moms” provided hot meals and cold drinks for the masons and volunteers.

Her home loan, which includes 525 square feet of land, will be repaid in small installments of about US$35 a month.

The house also includes water and electricity. “I don’t know how many times we turned the lights on and off,” Alba says in an interview, laughing. “And we flushed the toilet again and again when we first hooked it up, just to see our water—in our house.

“In that moment, we began a new story.”

For Alba, however, a simple, decent home was just the beginning. She admits that it took some time for her and the other Habitat families to be welcomed into their new community. “At times people even threw stones,” she says. But she didn’t give up. After a few months, she was leading these same neighbors in a successful lobby for street lights, guiding families through the process of applying for additional home improvement programs, and motivating others to attend Habitat for Humanity’s Financial Education workshops.

In one of these workshops, the idea arose for a community Women’s Association, which would organize infrastructural improvements such as road maintenance, public telephones and parks. Alba was, and continues to be, at the forefront. When asked what the association does, she answers, “A little of everything! We’ve created a communal area, and now have a project for an eco-tourism center where we can sell artisan products made by single mothers from the community.”

The association is also thinking to start a scholarship program that provides an opportunity for philanthropic donors to sponsor children in need of funds to continue their education.

In January of 2009—nearly a year after Alba moved into her new home—a 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck Costa Rica, with its epicenter just miles from her community. The quake took 34 lives and displaced some 1,200 people. “We are fine,” says Alba in her diary. “Our houses were not damaged, but in Cinchona, where the epicenter was, there are many families who lost their homes. There are deaths and injuries. Today, Saturday, Habitat is here with us. They responded immediately after the tragedy, helping at first with basic necessities and clothing. Thank you.”

Alba’s diary ends with an encouraging reminder that, “Habitat does not only provide shelter, it gives us happiness. It provides motivation and optimism. It provides confidence. It provides quality of life. Thank you, friends, for having given so much.”

To learn more about Habitat for Humanity in Latin America and the Caribbean, click here.