An incurable optimist leads by example -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

An incurable optimist leads by example

Sylvia Bautista, a family services associate with the L.A. affiliate, has been a proud Habitat homeowner since 2000. Her firsthand knowledge of the Habitat experience gives her a unique perspective on the life-changing power of having a proper home.

Los Angeles--Sylvia Bautista has a bad case of Habititus, and it’s wildly contagious.

A proud Habitat homeowner since 2000, Bautista now works full-time at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, devoting nearly every waking minute to spreading the word about the organization that changed her life.

She’s not alone, she insists. As a family services associate, she sees it happen all the time: People who get involved with Habitat on any level often end up staying involved for life, whether as a volunteer, an employee or simply an enthusiastic advocate.

Lots of people, it seems, come down with Habititus.

“I think it’s because Habitat is an organization where you can actually see results,” said Bautista. “Volunteers interact directly with families and really get to know them. And when families get through building their own house, a lot of them offer to do whatever they can to help the next person.”

‘Nothing to lose’

Before becoming a Habitat homeowner, Bautista lived with her four children in a run-down, roach-infested rental house in the city of Cudahy.

“The owners never did any repairs on it,” Bautista said. “They would come in at 4 in the morning sometimes, screaming and waking everybody up. And they had dogs, so my kids couldn’t play in the back yard because they were scared of them.”

Still, Bautista was hesitant at first to apply to be a Habitat partner, doubtful that she made enough money as a medical office worker to qualify.

“But a friend of mine said, ‘You have nothing to lose.’ ”

She applied, and when she didn’t hear back from Habitat within a few weeks, she resigned herself to staying in the dilapidated rental house.

“I started thinking, ‘Oh, well, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen this time, maybe somebody else needs it more than me.’ ”

Soon, though, she got a call from the affiliate, saying representatives needed to come back to her house for some follow-up questions. When they showed up, they had a hammer and a rose for her. She was going to get her house.

“My kids were so happy,” Bautista said. “My oldest son started crying. Then my daughter started crying because she saw him crying!”

The naysayers in her life immediately started casting doubt on whether her family would really be moving into a new home.

“You come across people who are always negative,” Bautista said. “They always think there’s a catch. They would say, ‘Habitat’s going to make you work those hours and then tell you you’re not going to get a house.’ You find a lot of negative people.

‘But there was no catch,” she added. “Well, the only catch is, they gave me Habititus!”

‘In the perfect spot’

Bautista was born in Tijuana, Mexico, but moved to the United States with her family when she was barely 2 months old. She is the youngest of nine siblings, all of whom live in L.A.

“It’s funny because even though I’m the youngest, when something goes wrong, they always look for me to solve whatever the problem is,” Bautista said, laughing. “That’s why I think I’m working in the perfect spot. After the families are selected, I make sure they do their sweat equity; I make sure they come to their classes; and I call them when they need to be interviewed. And any questions they have, they can come to me.”

Such maternal instincts come naturally to Bautista, 39, who had her first child when she was 15. She finished high school and has since completed some college courses toward her goal of getting a degree in social work.

Bautista’s case of Habititus obviously is catching: Her son, Jonathan, 23, recently started working full-time at the home improvement store at Habitat in Greater L.A.

“I really like working with the volunteers and the homeowners,” he said.

Jonathan and his wife, Jessica, and their infant daughter, Vivian Delores, are living with Bautista until Jessica finishes nursing school. Bautista’s 17-year-old daughter, Lauren, is in a magnet school for medicine and science, and both younger sons – 12-year-old Angel and 10-year-old Christopher – are in the gifted program at school.

All three children’s grades sank a little last year, when Bautista had to have back surgery to repair a bulging disc.

“When somebody in the family is sick,” Bautista said, “it affects everybody.”

She had surgery in November and was back at work in February, feeling great.

“Now that I went through what I did, being sick and having surgery, everything is easy to me,” she said. “Everything has a solution. The only thing that doesn’t have a solution is death. That’s the way I see it now.”

Putting in plenty of nails

Bautista’s no-nonsense approach and easy sense of humor serve her well as she works directly with families hoping to become partners with Habitat. Long after a family is in a Habitat home, Bautista tends to stay in touch with them.

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” she said with a laugh. “I make friends easily. That’s just the way I am.”

When she was earning sweat equity toward her own house, Bautista learned how to install cabinets, hang windows, paint and do rudimentary plumbing and basic home repair.

“I put a lot of nails in this house,” Bautista said. “I put extras. I wanted to make sure it didn’t fall apart!

“And I made a lot of friends on the job site. You come across so many people who have such a kind heart. You would never think so many people would be out there sacrificing their time for somebody else.

That’s something I had never experienced before.”

Bautista admitted she had reservations about the site of her new home, in a community near Watts

“When I first saw it, I said, ‘Ooh, this neighborhood looks very bad,’ ” she recalled. “But I thought, ‘With all these new homes here, I’m pretty sure they’re going to change the neighborhood.’

And they did.

As soon as all the Habitat families started moving in, she said, “you started seeing the neighbors fixing their fences, cleaning their yards, just taking more pride in their homes. They wanted theirs to look as nice as the Habitat homes.”

“Habitat changed my life,” Bautista said. “I feel more secure now. I feel at ease. I never thought I’d be able to own a home, unless I won the lottery or something. But now my kids have their own space. They can concentrate and do their homework, and they can have friends come over. Where we were before, they were too embarrassed to have friends over.”

The language of Habitat

Bautista speaks English and Spanish with equal ease, making her an invaluable member of an affiliate in a region with an ever-growing Hispanic population. In fact, her professional involvement with Habitat began when employees asked her to be an interpreter for Hispanic families who were prospective homeowners.

“Then one day somebody said, ‘Why don’t you come to our selection committee meeting?’ So I did, just to see,” she remembered. “As I was sitting there, they introduced me as their new committee member!”

By that point, her case of Habititus was incurable.

Having made the full circle -- from being selected as a Habitat homeowner to being one of the selectors -- Bautista embraces the challenges of the jobs with unbridled enthusiasm.

“It’s very difficult because you come across many families who really need a home, and there are never enough homes,” she said. “But you know what? You know those families can apply as many times as they want. And eventually it will be their turn.

“God has something waiting for everybody.”