Aging in place with Habitat for Humanity’s help
The first time Walter took a shower in his new bathroom, he cried. That’s because it was the first time the 81-year-old had a bathroom to shower in.
“If I think about it, it will make me shed some more tears,” says Walter, sitting on the front porch of his white house 30 miles south of Atlanta. He spent what seemed like hours in that first shower, he says. “The water was so hot and I just loved it.”
Walter talks about the volunteers and staff of Southern Crescent Habitat for Humanity who transformed one of his rooms into a bathroom so he no longer had to use an outhouse. The project was part of Habitat’s focus on repairs and renovations that can help people stay in their homes as they age. “I never had people be so nice to me,” Walter says. “You couldn’t meet people any better.”
As Walter talks, cars whiz by and new subdivisions close in. He moved into the 520-square-foot house that his father and uncle built when he was just a little boy. The surrounding area was country then, and outhouses were common. “We were poor,” Walter says, “and a bathroom was expensive.”
Walter’s parents were sharecroppers and picked cotton. “My mother could really pick some cotton,” he says. And so could Walter, who dropped out of school in the third grade to work in the fields.
Walter raised eight children of his own in the house. He had a city job as a street sweeper but still couldn’t swing a bathroom. “It was rough,” he says. “And it was embarrassing.” But he takes pride that his kids were always clean. “We had washtubs, and we heated the water. You got to take a bath.”
Walter’s daughter, Francine, has dropped by and is listening in as her father talks about her childhood. “Back then, there was just lots of love and no complaints,” she says.
Francine had wanted her father to come live with her, but he loves his independence and would have none of it. “I would bring him to my house, and he wanted to come home after a few hours,” she says. “I, sure enough, won’t be able to get him to come and stay with me now that he has a bathroom.”
Francine had worried about her dad at his age going to the outhouse at the edge of the backyard, especially at night and in bad weather. “I didn’t want him going out there in the cold or falling in the dark,” she says.
One day, Francine was speaking to someone with the county’s senior services who asked what Walter could use. She said a bathroom.
“I startled her because she wasn’t expecting that,” Francine says. “I told her I was dead serious.” The county contacted Southern Crescent Habitat, and the community came together to build Walter his bathroom.
MOMS Club of Fayetteville, a nonprofit of stay-at-home mothers, partnered with Habitat to fundraise online, and donations poured in. The North Georgia United Methodist Church and the Coweta-Fayette Trust made sizable donations. Seemed like everyone wanted to pitch in, either donating money or volunteering to do the work.
“People rallied around Mr. Walter’s story and the history at the house, which means a lot emotionally and collectively to the family,” says Cynthia Jenkins, Southern Crescent Habitat‘s CEO. “It just made it even sweeter that we were able to help this truly humble, sweet, kind man who really worked hard, took care of his family and did not want to be a bother to anyone.
“A lot of us asked ourselves, ‘If we don’t help Mr. Walter, who then do we help?’”
In addition to the bathroom, Southern Crescent Habitat and its volunteers replaced the kitchen countertops, cabinets and stove. They also did some underpinning to the foundation and painted the outside of the house white. “I kept my eye on them to see if they missed anything,” Walter says. “If they did, they went back. They are expert at painting.”
The bathroom itself has a good-size shower with grab bars and a shower seat. Photos of classic cars that Walter likes hang on the walls.
“All of those years, I never got used to not having a bathroom,” Walter says. “Now, I am so proud. And man, do I feel just great.”