The Anthony and Jessica Talamo family -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The Anthony and Jessica Talamo family

Anthony and Jessica Talamo take their children--Nick, 7; Margo, 5; and baby Sonni-Anne--on a tour of a Habitat build site.

Celebrating the kindness of strangers

Jessica Talamo recalls the first time she went to a Habitat construction site to start earning some sweat equity toward her family’s home.

“I felt like I was some kind of star,” Jessica said. “Each group of volunteers I meet is more amazing than the one before.”

Her husband, Anthony, nodded and smiled.

“We were kind of nervous the first time we went to a build site,” he said. “But the people there made us feel at home. And they kept telling us how amazing we were. I kept saying, ‘No, you’ve got that wrong. You all are the amazing ones.’”

Anthony and Jessica Talamo’s rented home in St. Bernard Parish was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They will be pitching in to build their new home with staff and volunteers at East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity during this year’s Carter Work Project.

“Habitat is such a blessing for us,” Anthony said. “This is a great start for our future.”

The Talamos have three children: Nick is already a baseball star at 7; Margo, 5, already has some trophies and crowns to show for her budding interest in small-town pageants; little Sonni-Anne is a happy 1-year-old.

“I miss all my baseball cards,” Nick said when asked about what he remembers of their old house. For Christmas last year, all he asked for was a house.

“I told him that would be tough to fit on a sleigh,” his father said. But by this Christmas, the family should be celebrating in their own house.

‘It’ll be our home’

On an unusually cold but typically rainy day in March, the Talamos went with Habitat staffers to pick out the piece of Slidell land where their house will stand. The whole family went, imagining where their rooms were going to be.

“It’s just surreal walking around on our property,” Anthony said. “We even imagined standing on our front porch.”

After Katrina struck, the Talamos spent some time in Tennessee and then Texas, where Jessica’s mother had evacuated. But Dallas didn’t feel like home, and so the family soon returned to Louisiana, where they’ve lived in a FEMA trailer for nearly two years. Nick and Margo spend a lot of time bickering in one bedroom, while baby Sonni-Anne shares a room with the parents.

Now, Nick envisions bunk beds in his new room, so he can have sleepovers again with all his cousins and baseball pals. Margo is already asking if she’ll be able to paint her room pink, with all the appropriate princess paraphernalia.

“You can have as many princesses on the wall as you want,” Jessica said she tells her. “It’ll be our home.”

On the day after the family picked out their property, they went to a nearby build site where they’ve been putting in their sweat equity hours. Today, a crew of Spring Breakers from Villanova University and assorted volunteers from Massachusetts swarm the Talamos as soon as they get out of the car with their children.

“The volunteers are just so amazing,” Anthony said. “I mean, these kids came down on their spring break to help build a house for somebody they didn’t even know … I hope to instill that in our children. I want this experience to touch them in a way that makes them want to give back when they get older.”

Affiliate Information:
East St. Tammany: 10 houses for Carter Project

East St. Tammany Parish, which includes the communities of Slidell, Lacombe and Pearl River, is located 30 minutes north of New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain. Hurricane Katrina sent 30-foot tidal waves onto the beaches of Slidell in 2005, destroying more than 4,000 homes and 1,000 businesses in the community of 35,000.

From its incorporation in 1992 until Katrina, East St. Tammany Parish Habitat for Humanity had built 24 homes. Since the hurricane, the affiliate has built 65 homes and renovated or repaired 13.

“We’ve gone through so many emotions,” said Debbie Crouch, program director at East St. Tammany Habitat. “In the beginning, right after the storm, we were in tears almost every day because we kept hearing people’s stories of what they had been through. Then we went through a period when we shed a lot of tears of frustration. But now when we cry, it’s usually happy tears.”

The affiliate started building within two weeks after Katrina and just recently shifted “out of crisis mode,” Crouch said. For this year’s Carter Work Project, staff members and volunteers will build 10 houses.