For wheelchair-bound Habitat homeowner, Tammy Cobb, a home of her own means independent living.
By Bill Sanders
Tammy Cobb had come to accept many barriers in her life. Some were real; some were lies. But they all worked together to snuff out hope and stifle self-esteem.
Cerebral palsy stole Cobb’s ability to walk from the time she was a baby. Her well-meaning parents had unintentionally convinced her that she couldn’t be on her own. And the man who fathered her now 8-year-old daughter deserted them, leaving her to wonder if she was worth being loved.
At 41 years old, having never lived outside her parents’ Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, home, Cobb wasn’t sure her parents were wrong. And in her most vulnerable moments, she wasn’t even sure the father of her child was wrong to walk away.
But she knew her daughter, Jovani, was worth fighting for. She needed a room of her own, a closet for her clothes and at least a little space for some toys. She needed to see that Mama had some fight left in her and that a disability didn’t have to define Tammy Cobb. And she needed to see the good that the world has to offer.
“I called Habitat for Humanity and asked to be on their waiting list for a house and for one of their workshops to open,” Cobb said. “As soon as I could get into a workshop, I went to it. And two months later, they chose me.”
Cobb’s dilemma was that she had always made too much money for public housing but never enough to make a down payment on a house or to afford most of the apartments in town.
She also needed a wheelchair-accessible home. For as long as she could remember, she had to crawl up and down her parents’ stairs to get from one floor to the other. She didn’t want to move into another place and still have to live that way.
Habitat told her she wouldn’t have to.
After putting in 350 sweat-equity hours of office work and assisting in others’ workshops, Tammy moved into her new home in the Allison Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg three years ago.
Harrisburg Habitat, a Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative affiliate, chose Allison Hill as its focus neighborhood and is building new homes and repairing and rehabilitating others, all while working to partner with churches, schools, police and city officials to revive the neighborhood. The key to NRI, Wachhaus said, is to listen to the community’s residents and get an idea of the assets the community already has in place. Residents become empowered to bring real change through partnerships with others who share the community’s vision.
“I love my house,” Cobb said. “It’s all very accessible and everything I dreamed it would be. Before I called Habitat, I did wonder if I would ever get one. I was to the point where I thought I’d never move out.”
As big of a blessing as it was, moving into her own home was terrifying to Cobb at first. Could she really make it on her own? What would nights feel like without the security of having her parents right down the hall?
“I was scared at first, but excited at the same time,” Cobb said. “I had never even been in a house alone all night by myself before, so that takes getting used to. I am used to it now though, and sleep right through the night.”
From the beginning, what impressed everyone was that Cobb didn’t just want a home, she wanted to be ready to succeed in her home. And she knew when she was filling out the application that she was not ready yet.
“She enrolled in some independent living classes and took advantage of a mentoring program that we make available,” said Eve Wachhaus, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area. “The life skills mentor worked with Tammy for more than two years, helping her with writing and math skills so she could balance her own checkbook and write her own checks.
That mentor, Habitat volunteer Andrea Addison, remains amazed at Cobb’s spirit and accomplishments.
“She took it all very seriously and maturely,” Addison said. Things had always been done for her at her parents’ house, and she needed to learn how to succeed.
“And we’d talk so much about things that she was nervous about, like maintaining a home. In reality, she taught me a lot.”
Since moving in, Cobb has become an enthusiastic ambassador for Habitat for Humanity.
“Every year now, she volunteers her home to be one of the houses in our walking tour part of the homebuyers’ workshop, and she gives of her time,” Wachhaus said. “She’s role model and spokesperson for us. And she’s never been late on a payment.”
Cobb is living that empowered life, not just because of what she now has, but because of what she can give.
“I have an attitude of wanting to help others see what this can all look like when it is finished,” she said. “So I’m trying to be a good neighbor to everyone, particularly when a new Habitat family moves in.”
Cobb’s is such a success story, the secretary of public welfare toured her home to see how a partnership between the Center for Independent Living and Habitat can result in beautiful homes for a Habitat homeowner who happens to need special accommodations, Wachhaus said.
And now, Cobb can let Jovani do more of the things that an 8-year-old should be doing.
“It’s been very good for her,” Cobb said. “Before, we had one closet to share, and I gave her three drawers and I had three drawers in the dresser. And we only had room for a few of her toys at a time. Now she’s bringing friends over and having sleepovers. It’s such a blessing.”