Turning it around in Birmingham -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Turning it around in Birmingham


Boy Scout Matt Crosby, 14, was able to get a photograph with former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in front of the playground he planned and helped built for the Wylam Oaks neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama. © Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

By Phillip Jordan

On the last day of this year’s Carter Work Project in Birmingham, Alabama, volunteers celebrated the completion of 28 of the 86 houses built, rehabilitated or repaired in six U.S. cities.

At Friday’s press conference in front of Caprechia Collins’ new home in the Fairfield community, Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford shared that Habitat for Humanity was the largest private homebuilder in the United States during the past fiscal year. Worldwide, more than 75,000 families partnered with Habitat to create new or improved homes.

“But we’re not winning,” Reckford cautioned. “One in seven families in the United States have fallen below the poverty line. This recession is a recession about housing, and if we’re going to bring communities back, it has to start with housing.”

Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, which focuses on lifting entire communities through a variety of housing solutions, is how Habitat plans to reverse the momentum. Habitat Greater Birmingham has focused its attention on neighborhood renewal for some time. In Fairfield, where volunteers built or repaired 18 houses, Habitat has remained active since 1997—even moving its affiliate office here.

The Jefferson County Commission provided the first 19 lots Habitat Greater Birmingham built on back in 1996. “Since then, I can’t even absorb the impact Habitat has had on this city,” said County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins. “It’s transformed this community, and it’s exceeded all my expectations.”

Gates Shaw, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Fairfield, can point to “killer streets” in the town where past violence has claimed lives. He said Habitat’s influence and sustained presence in the community have increasingly produced more positive results. “I think we’re turning that all around,” Shaw said.

In Birmingham’s Wylam community, residents had waited decades to witness meaningful new construction. Just over two years ago, Habitat Greater Birmingham pledged to build 37 houses there. On Friday, the final six families received the keys to their new Wylam homes.

It may be the beginning of better things for Wylam. Wylam Elementary School began construction shortly after Habitat began working in the area, and it has just been completed. Several homeowners’ children have already noticed the new brick building; it’s just down the road from Habitat’s Wylam Oaks neighborhood.

How bonds are formed

Because her Habitat house was rehabbed earlier in another section of Birmingham, Terri Sullivan put in her sweat-equity hours in Wylam. Over the past couple of months, she chose to work on Vanessa Gunter’s home. Gunter lives with her grandson, Justin. Sullivan is a single mom with five children living at home.

“Oh, we just bonded from day one,” Gunter said, as she and Sullivan talked Friday afternoon. “She’s a people person, and so am I. Anytime she came out here, I just felt closer to her than anybody at the house.”

“And I feel some ownership in her house,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t get a chance to do that on my own, so the fact that I could stay with her this whole time and help with her house meant an awful lot.”

Soon the two friends hope to visit over at Sullivan’s house. “Sure, we’re buddies now!” Gunter said.

“Oh yes, we are forever friends, forever in community,” Sullivan said. “Maybe we’ll even do something together on the anniversary of this day each year.”

What’s in a name

Angie Moon served as a volunteer on the 2000 Carter Work Project in Americus. The 2010 build in Birmingham was her seventh time building with the Carters.

“I have a very deep appreciation of their humanitarian efforts,” she said. She wanted to honor the former president in her own way. “In my family, we name people after important people in our lives or after saints. So when my husband and I found out we were having a daughter in 2009, we wanted to give her a name that wasn’t too girly and really meant something to us.”

On Friday morning, Moon presented Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter with a framed picture of her 19-month-old daughter, Carter Kathleen Moon. “She’s beautiful,” the former president said.

“She’s just learning to say her name right now,” Moon said. “But my parents raised us to do good and to help other people out. So I’ve learned a lot about you after getting involved with Habitat, and one day, I’ll teach my daughter why her name is so special.”

Phillip Jordan is a writer/editor for Habitat for Humanity International