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Matriarch of her family, dean of her street -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Matriarch of her family, dean of her street

Dorothy Howard’s house, built in 1988, was the first of more than a dozen Habitat for Humanity homes on Rawley Street.
©Ezra Millstein/Habitat for Humanity International

How Dorothy Howard built her Houston home to transform generations
By Phillip Jordan


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Dorothy Howard turned 75 in April. A few weeks before her birthday, she began hearing family members cooking up plans for a party. She heard it might be held at this or that relative’s home. Then she heard it would take place at a nearby park.

Howard never believed it.

“It doesn’t matter what’s happening — everyone always ends up wanting to use my house,” she said. “They’ll give excuses like, ‘Your place is just more comfortable,’ or, ‘It’s easier to get to for everyone.’ ”

She was right.

Though accurate head counts aren’t easy to come by when you have 27 grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren, scores of Howard’s friends and family descended on her home to celebrate the big day. Howard has played host to countless similar scenes over the past 24 years, ever since she built the house in partnership with Houston Habitat for Humanity — the first Habitat home in the city.

“I knew it all along,” Howard said, rolling her eyes and laughing at the memory of the party. “No, I’m thankful. It’s a blessing. I told them they could have the party here, if they all left by 5 so I could prepare for church the next day.”

From fear to goose bumps

When Dorothy Howard partnered with Houston Habitat in 1988, she simply wanted to provide a safer, more comfortable home for the eight grandchildren she was raising in a cramped, one-bathroom apartment in a dangerous complex. It had become a community ruled by drug dealers. Howard saw two young men murdered. She saw other mothers cry when their sons became dealers.

“I had two kids and grandsons who were ripe to be recruited,” Howard said. “But I never was a person who would back down from a fight. I told my boys, ‘If anyone approaches you to sell drugs, you let me know.’ And they did. And I went to the guys and told them: ‘If you even think they’ve got Howard blood running through their veins, don’t say anything to ’em!’ ”

For 16 years, through the untimely deaths of two children and a debilitating injury on her job as a machinist, Howard held her extended family together. All the while, she kept looking for ways to give the next generation opportunities she never had.

In early 1988, her best friend’s husband told her about a new group in town called Habitat for Humanity. Howard applied immediately.

“All the people I met and all the people I came in contact with through that first experience were just genuine, good people,” she said. “I had no doubts.”

For the better part of a year, Howard and her sons spent weekends building Habitat houses, including the one she and her eight grandchildren would move into on Christmas Eve of 1988. When she walked into her finished four-bedroom, two-bathroom house, she received another surprise: One of Houston Habitat’s first staff members had rallied Howard’s church members to donate some furniture and a washer and dryer.

When that same staff member realized the family’s gas wouldn’t be turned on in time for Christmas, Howard remembered, “He went to his home and got every electric skillet he could find. I think he cleaned his wife out! Just to get us things to cook on for Christmas.

“I think about it, and I still get goose bumps,” Howard said. “I felt like when I came in contact with Habitat, it was a miracle from God. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I thought I knew all about Christianity and about trust in God. But I never thought I’d become a part of an organization that truly defines what Christianity is all about: helping people. That is what they are all about — helping people to better themselves.”

Next: ‘What you make of it’
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