Birmingham family knows the bond of home -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Birmingham family knows the bond of home


Joy Kendall sits on the porch of her home, which is being renovated through Habitat for Humanity’s A Brush With Kindness program. Kendall and her sister, Gwen Williams, both immigrated to the United States from Guyana.
© Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


AmeriCorps members Madiha Ahmad (left) and Erin Ellis are helping the Freeman family build their new Habitat house in Birmingham, Alabama’s Wylam Oaks neighborhood. © Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


Wells Fargo employee Dawn Helms repairs the roof of the Norris family's house in Fairfield, Alabama, as part of Habitat’s A Brush with Kindness. Helms said she doesn’t like heights, but she took on the task anyway. © Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


By Phillip Jordan

Visit Joy Kendall’s Fairfield home as volunteers work to repair it, and it won’t take long to observe the sisterly bond between Kendall and Gwen Williams. Born and raised in Guyana—a country in northern South America—the sisters lived together until Kendall left for the United States at age 35.

After five years in New York, Kendall and her parents, who also immigrated, settled in Fairfield, Alabama. They loved the elbow room, and their yard; it felt a lot more like Guyana than New York City did.

But the family was still missing youngest sister Gwen. Around 2000, Williams and her son, Alex, finally immigrated to the United States as well. “My mom was still alive, and I hadn’t seen any of them for about 17 years, so I decided to live with them in Alabama,” Williams said.

Kendall is thankful for her younger sister’s presence, particularly since their mother died several years ago. On Wednesday morning, the two sisters sat together on their renovated front porch. “Like every other family, you have your ups and downs, but we have always been together, and we have that love,” Kendall said.

“This reminds me of when we were small, back home living together: She always tries to be the mom, and we [other siblings] always try to be rebellious,” Williams said with a laugh.

The two work together at a local Krispy Kreme doughnut shop—a fact well known and much appreciated by volunteers who gobble up the treats that the sisters bring during work breaks. Kendall is more than happy to offer whatever thanks she can to the volunteers helping her.

“I think our house was one of the worst around here,” she said, then spread her arms behind her. “Now look at it. Habitat has helped transform it!”

The renovated home comes as Williams and her 27-year-old son work toward another goal: transitioning from legal residents to American citizens. On Tuesday, Williams and Alex completed their final round of paperwork and interviews. They will soon receive a date for their citizenship test. To Williams, citizenship means two things. First, she will be able to live here the rest of her life. Second, “I will have a chance to vote for the first time!”

Kendall and Williams have enjoyed learning about the humanitarian efforts of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and they both love the Carters’ hands-on example of assisting those in need.

“Helping people is always good,” Williams said. “At this time, we are the ones that need help. But when we get up there”—at this point she pauses and raises her hand high above her head—“because we know we will, we’ll try to do the same for others.”

The educational perspective

Erin Ellis and Madiha Ahmad are among dozens of AmeriCorps members working on 28 houses in Birmingham this week. On Wednesday, they focused on the Freeman family’s new home in Wylam Oaks.

“Doing this helps us learn a lot about ourselves,” Ellis said. “Because I’m going to be honest: We’re not exactly the handy kind of girls!”

After their first Habitat build day, however, the friends knew how to attach siding. On Wednesday, they learned how to put down sod and how to finish several interior projects.

As AmeriCorps members working this year with a children’s literacy program in Birmingham, Ellis and Ahmad can also fully appreciate how much a stable home means to kids.

“Just having a home, somewhere you can come home every night, it’s something you can be proud of,” Ahmad said. “Especially children thrive when they have their own place to grow and play in. Habitat makes a big difference, so I’m happy to help out.”

The perspective from on high

“I’m not that comfortable with heights,” Dawn Helms said Wednesday morning from her perch atop Sandra Norris’ roof. The statement might have surprised some observers who watched Helms quickly move up and down the slanted roof, removing old nails before new shingles could be put in place.

“Well, they needed volunteers, and I thought, ‘This isn’t what I expected to do, but if there’s ever a day to overcome my fear, this is the day,’” she said.

Helms, a phone bank manager with Wells Fargo, joked that she only had herself to blame for the new experience: “Roof work! I should have read the fine print.”

What’s on tap

Thursday in Birmingham will bring more houses closer to completion. It will also bring more star power to the build sites. Country music star Garth Brooks is expected to work on Thursday, and the Carters arrive in the evening, ready to wrap up the week with building and final ceremonies Friday.

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