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A survivor learns how to thriveWith a safe place to live, everything else seems possible -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A survivor learns how to thrive

With a safe place to live, everything else seems possible

By Teresa K. Weaver


Mary Zar, 22, moved into a Habitat for Humanity house in East St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, when she was only 4. Now a junior at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Zar has aspirations of going on to law school and becoming a criminal prosecutor. Habitat for Humanity International /Ezra Millstein.


Slidell (Louisiana) City Judge Jim Lamz was the first person in his family to finish high school, and he spends much of his time trying to put juvenile offenders on the right path. He has been a mentor to Mary Zar, who is doing her third internship in the judge’s office. Habitat for Humanity International /Ezra Millstein.


Kathy Bass, a volunteer accountant at Habitat in 1994, took on a pivotal role early in Mary Zar’s life, encouraging her to focus on education and break the cycle of poverty. Photo courtesy of Mary Zar


Mary Zar lived her first few years in survivor mode. Her earliest memories are of rats coming in through gaping holes in the walls and floors and creeping around her family’s house.

“I remember them crawling very close to my bed,” Zar said.

Zar was 4 when her family moved out of that ramshackle shotgun rental and into their own affordable home, built in partnership with East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity in Slidell, Louisiana.

Now 22, she still shudders at the thought of rodents. And her recollection of what it felt like to move into a decent home — a few weeks before Christmas 1994 — is as vivid as the day it happened.

“It was a big step for my family, to have a new house that was safe,” Zar said. “The memory is still very clear about what that felt like, to be in my own room by myself. No rats, no holes in the walls, no siblings walking through my room.

“It was a good feeling.”

Even before she was mature enough to articulate it, Zar knew that a safe place to live was a starting point. Once she was in a healthy, positive environment, she could shift out of survivor mode and start envisioning a real future.

‘I just really want to help people’

This fall, Zar will be a senior at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. She’s majoring in criminal justice, with a minor in psychology, and plans to go to law school.

“I’d like to be a prosecutor for the state,” she said. “I just really want to help people.”

Zar was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. Life circumstances had forced both her parents to drop out before fifth grade, and none of her three older siblings had earned a diploma.

“I love my parents to death,” Zar said. “But the concept of education was foreign to them. It took other people to show me how important education would be to achieving my dreams.”

The volunteers who helped build the Zar family’s Habitat house were the first to see the potential in the timid little girl. Kathy Bass, an accountant in Slidell, kept the books for East St. Tammany Habitat, then a young nonprofit agency staffed entirely by volunteers. Every Saturday, Bass went to help out at the build site, where she got to know Warren and Patricia Zar and their three children: Jason, 14; Warren Jr., 10; and Mary, 4. (The oldest daughter, Brenda, 19, already lived on her own.)

“Mary was very shy,” Bass said. “She was our first small child in a Habitat house. I had actually walked through — and videotaped — the family’s old residence, so it was real to me the difference this house would make in her life.”

‘Life has no remote’

The family’s living conditions improved dramatically in the new house, but there were other obstacles to overcome. From first grade on, Mary struggled in school, where the stigma of being poor made her the target of schoolyard taunts.

“Mary’s life in the public school system was harsh,” Bass recalled. “It’s not easy to be poor. In poverty, everything about you spells ‘poor,’ from your $2 Goodwill tennis shoes to your used book bag.”

Even two decades later, those days are difficult for Zar to relive.

“Kids would call me poor and skinny and freckle-face,” she said quietly. “It was just kids being mean, but it hurt a lot. And it definitely made me not want to be at school.”

When Zar was on the verge of failing fifth grade, Bass spoke with Zar’s mother and suggested that the child might do better at First Baptist Christian School. Bass even paid for Zar’s first year of tuition. After the girl made good grades, she was granted a full scholarship for the rest of her time there.

Over the years, Bass became “Aunt Kathy” and took on more and more of a mentoring role. Now, Zar’s two younger siblings, 14-year-old twins Theresa and Johnny, live with Bass, and attend the same Christian school.

Bass likes to quote from Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which teaches the importance of giving “wings” to children — empowering them to rise above their circumstances and break negative patterns. He uses the term “transition person” to describe someone who serves as a link between the past and the future.

“Mary has become a transition person in her family,” Bass said, “through the ‘wings’ given to her by Habitat for Humanity.”

Jim Thomas, a longtime supporter of East St. Tammany Habitat who now serves on the land and construction committee, also took on an extraordinary mentor role with Mary — and now, with her younger siblings as well.

“To see Mary blossom and grow … I am in awe every day,” he said. “She has proven that it can be done — and done with an eye to help others do the same thing.

“I am most proud that she has accepted that life has no remote, so she has to get up and change it,” he said. “She knows that; she lives it; she understands what the opportunities are and how to take advantage and change her life.”

Next: Finding inspiration in tragedy
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