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A mother’s greatest gift -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A mother’s greatest gift

When Teresa’s son, Jesse, was born in 2003, he had Down syndrome and a hole in his heart. Through Jesse, Teresa discovered her career path. She
recently started a job as a child and family advocate with The Arc of Maryland
. Photo courtesy of Teresa Herbert

Security for a special-needs son begins with a stable home
By Soyia Ellison


Teresa had a fence installed around her Habitat home so that Jesse can safely play outside.
Photo courtesy of Teresa Herbert


Series homepage: Why We Build


Even now, two years after moving into her new Habitat home in Aberdeen, Maryland, Teresa Herbert still finds herself checking out “For Rent” signs as she drives.

“Could I afford that?” she wonders. “Would they accept us?”

Then she reminds herself that she has a home — a permanent one — where she and her 9-year-old son, Jesse, can live as long as they like.

“But, I guess it’s just so ingrained,” she said. “I still have nightmares that we have no place to go. I have to walk through the entire house to believe we really have it.”

Teresa spent the first seven years of Jesse’s life scrambling for places to live, moving from one cold, moldy, leaky apartment to the next, only to lose it when she couldn’t pay the rent.

It wasn’t the life she had envisioned for her son.

But Jesse was born with Down syndrome, autism and a hole in his heart. Teresa quit her job and gave up nursing school to focus on keeping him alive. Even after undergoing successful open-heart surgery at 6 months old, Jesse was still medically fragile — vulnerable to infections that would only inconvenience most children.

No daycare would take him. No ordinary babysitter could handle his special needs. Teresa served as his 24-hour-a-day caregiver, which left her no time to work.

Before Jesse turned 1, the bank repossessed Teresa’s car. A few months later, her landlord evicted them.

Going from bad to worse

Teresa found a new apartment, albeit one with a hole in the roof: “It was a bad place, but it was a place.”

Then came the news that Teresa’s mother, only 55 at the time, had inoperable liver cancer that had spread to her pancreas. Teresa didn’t want to put her mother in hospice, so she made a place for her in the leaky home.

“The house was in such disrepair that we just stayed in one room,” she said. “I had my mom in a hospital bed, and then Jesse and I slept on an air mattress in that room. That way I could have space heaters.”

Desperate, Teresa called Habitat for Humanity Susquehanna.

“I told them, ‘My mom is dying, and I need a house,’ ” she remembered. “And they explained to me that it’s a very long process.”

The person on the other line prayed with her and told her to call again: “I could hear them crying. I know it was hard for them to say, ‘This isn’t going to work out; we’re not going to have you a place to live in two weeks or whatever.’ ”

Teresa’s mother died on Sept. 19, 2007, as Teresa read to her from the Bible: “She was so strong. She didn’t even cry...She said Jesus was waiting for her, and she was good. She said that she would look after me. And that was it.”

Shortly after her mother’s death, Teresa again found herself short of money and had to move. About a year later, the cycle repeated itself.

Next: ‘I have failed my child so much’
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