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‘The place we call home’ -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

‘The place we call home’

Michael and Cindy Johnson, with daughter Elishia and son Joshua, share a home in Vancouver, Washington.
In February, they paid off their 20-year mortgage. Photo courtesy of Evergreen Habitat for Humanity

Paying it forward while paying the mortgage
By Ann Hardie


Michael Johnson does the honors as Cindy holds a copy of the couple’s mortgage, marked paid in full and soon to go up in flames. Photo courtesy of Evergreen Habitat for Humanity


Cindy Johnson (left) and her son, Joshua, submit the family’s final mortgage payment to Laurie Runyan, bookkeeper at Evergreen Habitat for Humanity. For 20 years, the Johnsons made their monthly payments in person at the Habitat office. Photo courtesy of Evergreen Habitat for Humanity


Every month for nearly 20 years, even when money ran short, Cindy and Michael Johnson drove to Evergreen Habitat for Humanity in Vancouver, Washington, and paid their mortgage bill in cash.

The three-bedroom house — sky blue with white trim — provided the couple a safe and healthy place to raise their son and twin girls. It also was a refuge for countless down-on-their-luck families who slept on couches and floors when they had nowhere else to go. Though space was tight, the Johnsons always found room.

“Our job on Earth is to show the love of the Lord,” Michael said. He remembered being especially moved after coming across a mom and her five kids sleeping in their car. The mother had the ashes of a sixth child with her. “That just broke my heart,” Michael said.

The house on Northeast 98th Avenue has special meaning for Evergreen Habitat, too — it is the first one built in the area by Habitat and its volunteers. And on Feb. 28, the Johnsons became the first Evergreen Habitat family to pay off their mortgage.

“For me, it is a great sign of success — that the work our predecessors did has really paid off,” said Josh Townsley, executive director of Evergreen Habitat.

At a recent celebration, the Johnsons set fire to their mortgage document (actually a copy of it), and Townsley spoke of the dozens of Habitat families who have been helped by the couple’s mortgage payments, most of whom they will never meet.

Every mortgage payment went into a revolving fund that has, to date, built 25 homes in Clark County, a bedroom community of Portland, Oregon. Through Habitat’s tithe program, part of that money also went to help build 30 homes in developing countries.

“That’s a big deal,” Townsley said.

The journey begins

The past two decades have flown by and taken many memories with them, the Johnsons said. But they both vividly recall where their journey with Habitat began.

They were living in a dilapidated 10-by-60-foot trailer with pink sinks, faulty wiring and a leaky roof when a friend told them about this new organization coming to Clark County.

“We said, ‘This is never going to happen for us,’ ” Cindy said. “Then it did.”

In September 1993, the family moved into their new Habitat home, and Cindy laughed at how her son Joshua, then 5, ran around screaming, “I have my own closet!” Their twin girls, Elishia and Mary, celebrated their first birthday in the house.

That Christmas, Evergreen Habitat bought the family a small Douglas fir in a planter to decorate. Michael planted the tree by the side of the house. It now stands 30 feet tall.

Two decades ago, Evergreen Habitat was struggling to put down its roots. The Johnsons’ home is built on land donated by the county.

“I remember it being a very slow build, with just a few volunteers on the weekends,” said Bill Bryant, a founding member of Evergreen Habitat. “We encountered every problem you can encounter.”

Turns out there was no sewer line nearby, so a septic tank had to be installed. (The house has since been hooked to the city sewer line.) The day of the house dedication, the county had yet to issue an occupancy permit certifying the home’s safety.

“As we were handing over the keys, a county official drove up — on a Saturday, no less — with the permit,” Bryant said. “It was all very dramatic, and very exciting.”

Evergreen Habitat relied on an all-volunteer staff for its first 10 years, and learned many lessons from building the Johnsons’ home and all the ones that followed. One of the key lessons, Bryant said, was that family involvement is key to Habitat’s success. After moving into their house, the Johnsons served on Evergreen Habitat’s board for several years.

“We came into that build with the idea of helping a needy family,” Bryant said. “What we learned is that the volunteers got as much out of it as the Johnsons did. Of course, we all know that now. But we didn’t then.”

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