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The transformative power of building a house -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The transformative power of building a house

Maricella Martinez displayed such high energy and cheerfulness while building her house that Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona hired her to work with its volunteers.

Undaunted by tragedies, one homeowner finds purpose in inspiring others
By Soyia Ellison


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When Maricella and Isaiah Martinez married in 2000, the newlyweds skipped their honeymoon so they could save money for a down payment on a house.

They bought one a year later, a three-bedroom stucco in Phoenix, Arizona, where their little family grew to include a daughter, Lindsay, and a son, Gabriel.

Isaiah, who drew up floor plans for trade shows, was an energetic handyman who tackled household projects as quickly as Maricella thought of them.

“I used to call him my Mexican MacGyver,” she said. “I dreamt it, and he built it.”

So she knew something was wrong in 2008 when the bathroom towel rack that had fallen was still on the floor a week later.

Isaiah had no appetite and had been complaining of being tired. At Maricella’s insistence, he saw a doctor. The diagnosis: pancreatic cancer, with no hope of recovery.

“You’re kidding,” she remembers thinking. “This guy is 31. You’re in the wrong room.”

But they weren’t: Isaiah died on Dec. 14, 2008.

Going into survival mode

Within a few months, Maricella realized that without Isaiah’s salary, she couldn’t pay the mortgage. And that was before her position as a human resources specialist was eliminated and she took a lower-paying job as a receptionist. She had no choice but to put the family’s house up for short sale.

“In 11 months, my husband died, my work was gone and my house was gone,” she said. “Losing your husband’s hard enough. Or losing your job. Or losing your house. And here it was like, ‘I have nothing.’ ”

Maricella, though, inherited strength, determination and optimism from her mother, a native Guatemalan who had worked long hours as a grocery store cashier to support her four children.

“I just went into survival mode,” Maricella said. “And I know that had a lot to do with growing up with a single mom. Failing is not an option. Losing is not an option. I’d tell myself, ‘I’ll fall apart, but not today. Maybe someday, but not today.’ ”

When Maricella was 16, her mother had fulfilled what had seemed an impossible dream: She bought her own home through Habitat for Humanity.

After Maricella and her children lost their home, they returned to live with her mom. She had fond memories of the house — the first place she’d ever had a bedroom all to herself — but returning after eight years on her own wasn’t easy.

She remembered thinking, “I’m 29 years old, and I have to be home by midnight?”

Next: ‘It’s not scary anymore’
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