The Miller family -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The Miller family

Alicia Miller, a former bartender in New Orleans, reinvented herself as a hairdresser so she could spend more time with her son, Joseph.

‘If you live a good life, things are going to happen’

Just after Hurricane Katrina, Alicia Miller and her son, Joseph, were essentially homeless, dependent on the generosity of friends “here, there and everywhere.”

“I thank God for them,” Miller said.

Before the storm, Miller was a full-time cosmetology student and part-time bartender in New Orleans. Now, she is a licensed cosmetologist. She and Joseph live with a client friend while waiting for her Habitat house to be built during this year’s Carter Project.

“It turns out that storm was the best thing that could have happened to us,” she said. “You know, you pull yourself up and do what you have to do.”

Miller and her son had lost everything overnight.

“It was three weeks before we even got to go back home,” she said. “By that time, even stuff that wasn’t ruined by water was molded. I lost all my pictures I had been saving my whole life.

“I did save my recipes,” she added. “I was very happy about that!”

Life changes

Miller had already started making some life changes before Katrina struck. After working as a bartender in the French Quarter for 15 years, she had started working toward a new career in hairstyling that would allow her more time for her son.

“My son is the sole reason I do everything in life,” she said. “I didn’t want to be at work at night when he was at home. I needed to be at home with him.”

Being displaced seems to have strengthened the bond between mother and son.

“You know, when it first happened, all I thought about was me,” Miller said. “You know, I lost everything. It’s all about me, me, me. And then I found my son sitting in the closet crying one day. I felt terrible. I realized this wasn’t just about me.

“I was pity-partying myself so much, I didn’t think about what he was going through.”

Joseph now thrives in school and enjoys all the typical after-school activities of preadolescence. He is thrilled their new Habitat house will be next door to his good friend Jacob Middleton.

Hesitant at first

When Miller first applied at Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany West, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

The experience has turned out to be a lot more fun than she anticipated.

“I want to be a construction worker. It’s so much fun” she said. “I’ve learned how to do roofing, siding, decking, installing faucets … you name it.

“It’s not intimidating at all to be on the construction site,” she said. “Anything you want to do, they don’t stop you.”

Miller’s house is scheduled to be finished by Christmas. Her mother will move in with her, too.

And even after Miller’s house is finished, she’s determined to help put her newfound carpentry skills to work on homes for other people.

“It’s rewarding,” she said. “You know you’re helping somebody. It just makes you feel good.

“I believe if you live a good life, a right life, things are going to happen for you,” she adds. “I believe in the karma thing. I do believe that.”

Affiliate Information:
St. Tammany West, Louisiana: 30 homes for displaced families

Before Hurricane Katrina, Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany West was on a five-year strategic growth plan to add five homes a year to its production and reach 30 homes a year by 2008.

“So much for planning,” said Maureen Clary, executive director of the affiliate. “We built 42 homes last year and plan to build 50 this year and 50 next.”

Clary, a board member at the time of the storm, decided to leave a 25-year career in commercial real estate development and property management to go full time with Habitat.

“It was the best decision I ever made—or that God made for me,” Clary said.

St. Tammany Parish, located in the metro New Orleans area just north of Lake Pontchartrain, has absorbed much of the workforce population from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, pushing the limits of infrastructure in the cities of Covington, Mandeville and surrounding communities.

“Many families who thought they would return to New Orleans have found jobs, good schools, access to health care, and have decided to stay,” Clary said. “We are still seeing trends of two, three and four families sharing homes.”

A recent study shows a need for 10,000 workforce housing units by 2009 in St. Tammany. The affiliate consistently has a waiting list of 200 to 300 families who need homes.

For this year’s Carter Work Project, the St. Tammany West affiliate will lead more than 300 volunteers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia to build 10 houses in West Abita Nursery in Covington in the five-day blitz build. In addition, 20 more houses will either be started or dedicated as part of the Carter Project.