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The ripple effect of change -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The ripple effect of change

Jose Tobar was 15 when Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project volunteers built his family’s home and 20 others in the Watts community of Los Angeles
in 1995. Now 32, he owns his own home and has embarked on a career to help others in need of affordable housing. Photo courtesy of the Tobar family

A house — and a little presidential advice — begins a chain of transformation
By Soyia Ellison


At 15, Tobar could already see the sense of pride that homeownership instilled in his parents. Photo courtesy of the Tobar family


On a sunny afternoon in June 1995, a trembling 15-year-old stepped up to a podium to address a crowd that included former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.

Jose Tobar — “Little Jose,” as he was known then — had been given some advice just before he left his seat: “Speak from the heart.” So he put away his notes and began to talk. He doesn’t remember exactly what he said; he knows only that he tried to express his thanks to the volunteers who had built 21 homes in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, during the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

One of those homes would be his family’s.

“I started thinking about what my life was before Habitat, and how it was going to change … and I started to cry,” he remembers. “And so did, like, hundreds of other people.”

Though his own words are lost to him, he will never forget the ones President Carter spoke to him after he left the stage: "It is kids like you that make Rosalynn and I proud to do what we do. You give us reason to continue. I’m proud of you, son."

‘Your mind starts to change’

“Little Jose” is now 32. He owns his own home and has embarked on a career devoted to helping others in need of affordable housing.

It’s a life entirely different from the one that seemed to be his destiny.

For years, he and his family lived in cramped apartments. At one point, he shared a bedroom with his brother, Walter, and sister, Liseth, while his parents slept on a pullout couch in the living room.

Studying in these conditions was nearly impossible.

Tobar finished his freshman year of high school with a G.P.A. of “1-point-something.”

“I didn’t know how I was going to get through school,” he recalls. “I didn’t think I could make anything out of myself.”

But then the family moved into their new Habitat home, and something changed.

His grades began to improve, and he took on leadership roles at school. He became president of the history club, a member of JROTC, student body treasurer. By the time he graduated, he had turned that 1-point-something into a 3.6 and had acceptance letters from three colleges.

“I had my own room,” he explains. “I could really study in my room.”

More than that, though, he had a new outlook on life.

“Coming from poverty, people have this mentality that, ‘Hey, I’m stuck here for the rest of my life,’ ” he says. “But when you are given a hand up, when you are given an opportunity, your mind starts to change.”

He held on to that new outlook even as life dealt him disappointments.

From banking to books, and back again

Tobar did well in his freshman year at California State University Northridge, balancing classes and a job at Washington Mutual Bank. But during his sophomore year, he developed a degenerative eye condition that left him legally blind. No longer able to read his textbooks, he dropped out of school.

It was a difficult time.

To keep his depression at bay, Tobar used his savings to buy a little bookstore called Mana. That might seem like a strange choice for someone who could no longer read, but, he says, it wasn’t much of a bookstore anyway.

“It wasn’t a business; it was more of a community builder.”

People came in to sit and read for a while or just to talk to him about their problems. He gave inexpensive music lessons to their children.

“It was very good for me because I was able to connect with them and forget about my troubles,” he says. “It helped me not to be too depressed.”

The store eventually went under, but by then, he had received a cornea transplant that restored his sight. He was able to go back to work full-time in the banking industry.

Next: An opportunity to help
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