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Healthy at home: Children thrive in a safe place -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Healthy at home: Children thrive in a safe place

Alana Petretic examines a tiny butterfly in the lush vegetable and flower garden her mom has created in front of the family’s Habitat home.
The whole family is healthier now that they have access to berries, vegetables and herbs that they grow themselves. © Habitat for Humanity International/Steffan Hacker

After promising her son, ‘We’re going to get out somehow,’ mom finds a way
By Soyia Ellison


Shirley and Gary Petretic moved into their Habitat home in Charleston, West Virginia, in 2009, with their children: Nathan, Mason and Alana. The family had spent the previous seven years in public housing, contending with noise, crime and unhealthy conditions.
Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha & Putnam County


The night Shirley and Gary Petretic moved into their Habitat home in Charleston, West Virginia, in 2009, they put the kids to bed and lay on the brand-new carpet in their living room.

Side by side in the dark, they luxuriated in the silence.

“We were soaking in the lack of sound,” Shirley remembers. “We hadn’t had quiet in years.”

The Petretics had spent the previous seven years in public housing, tormented by the yelling of neighbors and the wailing of police sirens. They had witnessed dozens of drug deals, seen the muzzle flash from a gun fired just outside their window, watched as police tasered a suspect.

Now they lay in the peace of a house they helped build as their three children slept safely in the next rooms.

It is Shirley’s favorite memory of life in her new home.

‘Not any place you want to raise a kid’

The first house Shirley ever lived in was condemned; her parents bought it with the intention of fixing it up. The downstairs floors were rotting, so the family lived in the attic. Later they moved to a home in Cleveland, Ohio, that had no heat. From there they ended up in rural West Virginia, in a three-room house with no indoor plumbing.

Still, young Shirley had acres and acres in which to play, and she remembers the years there as some of the happiest of her life.

She finished high school with plans to study broadcast journalism. But going to school full-time and working full-time proved too much, and she dropped out. She spent a year working as an AmeriCorps member in Cleveland, and then drifted from job to job.

Shirley met Gary, her husband-to-be, at a bus stop outside Burger King just about the time she got evicted from her apartment. The couple decided to move into her mother’s home in a small community a couple of hours outside Charleston. That’s where their first son, Nathan, was born.

Her mother’s house was plagued by black mold — and bats.

Shirley recalls being woken up more than once by the wind from a bat’s wings. She would grab her son and hide under a blanket while her husband “took his tennis racket and started whacking.”

“It was just not any place you want to raise a kid.”

Because jobs were nearly impossible to come by in her mom’s tiny town, the family relocated to Charleston and moved into the projects. It was an eye-opening experience, in the worst possible way.

“Never have I seen anything like that,” Shirley says. “I did not grow up in bad neighborhoods. I grew up in bad houses.”

One day she was feeding Nathan in her bedroom when she heard sounds of a commotion. Looking out, she saw police officers chasing a man. They threw something at him — probably tear gas — and within minutes fumes wafted through her open window, stinging her eyes and burning her throat.

“At that point, I promised my son, ‘We’re going to get out somehow,’” she remembers. “I didn’t know how we were going to do it. But we were going to get out.”

She called Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha & Putnam County that day to request a flier.

Fulfilling a mother’s promise

Shirley learned that she and her husband didn’t make enough money to qualify for a home. But she held on to the promise she had made to her son, even as their family grew and they moved into another public housing project.

This one had fewer crime problems but was riddled with termites and roaches. A wasp’s nest clogged the heating vent, and a neighbor’s overflowing toilet flooded their bedroom. In their own bathroom, the floor around the toilet had rotted and was threatening to give way.

No matter how much Shirley scrubbed, no matter how much bleach she used, the place still felt dirty.

“We knew that if we didn’t get out, our kids were going to be spending probably most of their childhoods in a hospital.”

When her husband landed a higher-paying job, Shirley filled out a Habitat application. The couple spent the next two years repairing their credit and putting in hundreds of sweat-equity hours building the homes of others — and finally, a home of their own.


Next: A family takes root
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