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A blueprint for life -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A blueprint for life

The Elm home in Story City, Iowa, in 2012. Photo courtesy of Lisa Elm

Aspiring architect finds inspiration in her childhood home
By Julia Sellers


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Why We Build


Staring out the passenger window of a Chevy Cavalier into an empty, tree-lined lot, 10-year-old Mandy Elm saw her future.

“This is where our house is going to be,” she told her mom.

Mandy’s mother, Lisa, had brought her and her 8-year-old brother, Justin, to look at the site of what would be Habitat for Humanity of Story County’s very first house, in Story City, Iowa.

Though there wasn’t much to see, the lot’s potential painted a pretty picture. The Elms saw in it an escape from the cramped quarters of their two-bedroom apartment, with its “playground” of asphalt and cemetery plots behind the building. They imagined a garden and a house with space for friends to sleep over.

Lisa tried to explain to her daughter that even though she had filled out an application, she wasn’t guaranteed a home.

But Mandy possessed a child’s faith: “No, Mom, this is where our house is going to be built,” she said. “I just know it. I just know it.”

Mandy, now 25, ties her successes to that late summer night when her mother first told her she’d applied for a Habitat home. Something about watching her mother help build that home —viewing the building plans, smelling the sawdust or seeing the exposed studs of the frame — inspired her to become an architect.

“I wouldn’t have come into construction and homebuilding otherwise,” Mandy said. “And I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it. (Architecture) is definitely not a career a lot of ladies choose.”

Pulling away

Within six months of filing the application, the family moved into the new home. It had white siding and black shutters — and bedrooms for everyone.

“Justin and I, we finally had a place to invite friends over for sleepovers, birthday parties and late-night cookouts,” Mandy said. “Our home became a place of comfort and safety, not only to ourselves but our friends.”

Justin, now 23, lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he’s about to start working on a master’s degree in interactive telecommunications. He says having a home gave him a sense of normalcy.

It “gave me a sense of belonging, making me a well-adjusted individual,” he said. “I got to go through the same school system and go through the same things with my friends.”

Mandy’s experience was more complex. She appreciated the opportunities the home provided but felt the experience of getting it had exposed her as a child of poverty. She remembers the embarrassment of watching her classmates landscape her future home as part of their volunteer work, and feeling she’d forever be known as “the Habitat kid.”

So while attending Iowa State University, Mandy stepped away from Habitat, glad to escape childhood labels. But when she couldn’t find a job in her field after graduation in 2010, she was led back to Habitat through AmeriCorps. She went to work as a sustainable building coordinator with Habitat for Humanity of East King County, in the Seattle, Washington, area.

Next: Rediscovering Habitat’s impact
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