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A survivor learns how to thrive (part 2) -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A survivor learns how to thrive (part 2)


As a young teenager, Mary Zar discovered an affinity for photography. Especially after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast in 2005, Zar found solace in capturing images of the landscape and the people she holds dear. Photo courtesy of Mary Zar


Mary Zar, 22, returned to her alma mater, Salmen High School in Slidell, on April 24, 2013, to present Tredon Peterson the first scholarship named in her honor. Debbie Crouch, executive director of East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity (center), said the affiliate chose to honor Zar for being an inspiration to other young people who come from difficult circumstances. Habitat for Humanity International /Ezra Millstein.


A tattered family photo shows the Zar family in 1994, shortly after moving into their Habitat for Humanity house in Slidell, Louisiana. From left: Warren Jr., Patricia, Mary, Warren Sr. and Jason. Photo courtesy of Mary Zar


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Finding inspiration in tragedy

Zar has dreamed of being a lawyer since she was very young. Her interest was spurred by tragedy: Zar’s mother, Patricia, was 8 when a drunk driver plowed into the family’s car, killing her sister and cousin, and leaving Patricia with traumatic brain injuries that have made her life difficult.

“Her experience inspired me to go to law school and to make sure people pay for the damage they cause,” Zar said.

When Zar was in 10th grade, she met Slidell City Judge Jim Lamz after a fundraising event for Habitat. Zar had spoken to an audience about what the house had meant to her family, and it had struck a chord with Lamz.

“I heard her story, and it was almost identical to my story,” he said. “After the event, I introduced myself and told her that just like her, I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. I found out she was interested in law, so I told her, ‘When you’re ready, I have a job for you.’ ”

Zar now works 24 hours a week at the courthouse as a paid intern. She helps with filing, closing out dockets, making phone calls and running background checks, all while absorbing everything she can about working in the legal field.

“She’s a wonderful employee and a wonderful person,” Lamz said. “She deserves everything, because she works so hard. She’s punctual, she’s reliable, she’s pleasant, she’s hard-working — she has all the great qualities.”

‘A light to swim toward’

As a city judge, Lamz sees a relentless stream of troubled kids come through his court. For many of them, he said, simply being born into poverty is the most daunting obstacle they face.

“These children didn’t choose to be born into a particular environment,” Lamz said. “And most of the time they’re overwhelmed. They have feelings of helplessness. We try to give them something — a hand up or a light to swim toward.”

Zar gives a lot of credit to trusted mentors — Lamz included — for keeping her on the right path. She says it’s her responsibility to keep paying that forward.

In April, Zar went to Slidell’s Salmen High School to award the first Mary Zar East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity Scholarship to Tredon Peterson, a scholar and basketball player.

“It was a moment I will never forget,” Zar said after presenting the scholarship to Peterson at an assembly in the cavernous gymnasium. “Education truly is the key to life. Educate yourself, and you have no limits to what you can achieve.”

Zar and her boyfriend recently became homeowners.

“We’ve worked really hard and saved money instead of blowing it on stupid stuff,” Zar said. “Homeownership means the world to us. We’ve moved so many times over the past few years, from one apartment to another. Now we can relax and focus on what we want our future to be.”

‘If it helps one more kid …’

Zar says her future would have been bleak without Habitat.

“I would not have finished high school,” she said. “I was the first female in my family who wasn’t pregnant by the time she was 15. Habitat gave me a stable place to live. As a kid, that’s your biggest fear — not having a place to go home to.

“Once I had that, everything else could change.”

Zar is a frequent guest speaker at Habitat events and fundraisers. Debbie Crouch, executive director at East St. Tammany Habitat, calls Zar “my hero.”

“It’s not easy to be a kid and talk about being poor,” Crouch said. “But Mary is special — she always has been. There is nothing more powerful than hearing her share her story in her own words.”

Zar also volunteers at the Slidell Soup Kitchen from time to time. But most of her non-study time is spent being an advocate for affordable housing.

“Public speaking still scares the hell out of me, to be honest,” she said. “But if it helps get one more home built for one more kid who needs it, it’s worth it.”