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Sidewalk chalk is allowed

In the middle of my interview with Rodney and Sheila Cobb, there was a knock on the door. Sheila and I kept chatting while Rodney answered it. He came back a moment later, rolling his eyes. "Guess what that was about," he said with forced smile.

"The sidewalk chalk," Sheila said, shaking her head.


Rodney and Sheila Cobb play with their youngest daughter Jamarea. More space, investing in something that is their own and the freedom to do what they choose with their property are all benefits of homeownership the Cobbs eagerly anticipate.

She turned to me. "Can you believe it?" she asked. "Our girls aren't allowed to draw on the sidewalk with chalk. The landlady says it's 'graffiti.'"

I had seen the "offensive" drawing in question when I'd walked up. A blue chalk woman—I'd commented to Steffan, the photographer traveling with me: "How cute!"

The "no sidewalk chalk allowed" rule is among many restrictions at their current residence in Monroe, Mich. There is also no ball playing allowed; no guest parking without prior approval; very specific rules about how residents can position their grills on their back patios; only white curtains can be hung.

These rules are among the many reasons Rodney and Sheila are anxious to own their own home and leave landlords behind. They are also excited about investing in something permanent rather than "throwing money away on rent." And they can't wait for more privacy—and more quiet—than they have in their current apartment quarters, where they can hear everything going on next door through the paper-thin walls.

There will be more privacy within their home, too. The Cobbs' current home has only two bedrooms—their three daughters share one. Their new home will have four bedrooms, so everyone can have some space. Eight-year-old Dasia is ecstatic, Sheila says: "She keeps telling me, 'It's going to be my own room, and Aleeya [her 5-year-old sister] can't touch my stuff!"

Sisterly squabbles aside, the Cobbs exude the essence of a loving family. As I conduct my interview, Rodney and Sheila alternately play with their youngest daughter, Jamarea, who just turned 1. Her happy-baby smiles and giggles are too much for Steffan to resist; he photographs while I ask questions and take notes. The Cobbs graciously pose and answer. It's like having a visit with old friends.

But you can tell that the Cobbs are the kind of people who make friends easily. They're eager to meet the volunteers who are going to help them build their house and the other four houses being blitz built during the Jimmy Carter Work Project week in June. "We're just very grateful—you're giving up your own time," Rodney says. "Owning your own home makes dreams come true; [volunteers] make it possible."

Sheila adds, "I'm so excited I just want to take off running through the yard and do flips—but that might be against the landlady's rules!"

We all laugh as we wrap up the interview. Rodney has to get ready for work. Recently home from Iraq with the Navy, he now works with the Transportation Security Administration at the Detroit airport. Jamarea is hungry. Steffan and I have other appointments to keep anyway….

But I can't wait to visit their new house and bring a housewarming gift: sidewalk chalk.

—Leigh Powell, Editorial Manager, Habitat for Humanity International, based on an April 2005 interview

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