— Jimmy Carter
39th U.S. president (1977-81)
(b. Oct. 1, 1924)
From, “If I Had a Hammer”
Most people have been blessed with one or more life-changing experiences, whether or not they realized it at the time.
Some can be as dramatic as surviving a near-death disaster like a car crash, a house fire or maybe even a devastating tornado. Others carry less impact, but still manage a punch of their own — heartwarming Christmas drives, a feel-good civic project and deep-reaching acts of Samaritanism are the first that come to mind.
Those who say they’ve never been touched in such a way are probably the first to forget it’s not always about parting the waters of a sea, curing cancer or feeding the world. Sometimes it’s about the little things, those tiny slices of life that define our values.
An 11-year-old girl reminded me recently of some of the most precious times in my life. I had not forgotten them, nor will I ever. But I hadn’t thought about them for months, maybe even a couple years. And that’s bad ... because these were experiences that opened my eyes and ripped at my heart; but, in a good way.
Her name is Destiny Crawley. She spoke recently to members of the Cleveland Kiwanis Club. I wasn’t there to hear her story, but I read the account in this newspaper as touchingly told by staff writer Delaney Walker.
Destiny, along with her disabled mom and brother, recently became Habitat for Humanity of Cleveland homeowners.
It was Destiny’s comment early in the story that grabbed my attention and tugged at my heart. It reminded me of some past Habitat families whose life stories gave me far more than my hammer could ever have given them.
“Our Habitat home is the best thing that ever happened to my family,” Destiny told the luncheon crowd. “We used to be homeless. When we were homeless we didn’t feel safe. We were afraid of the other people.”
Before Habitat, their trek in life took them to a shelter, a rodent-infested trailer, a tiny one-room apartment and finally to a small, aging house whose rent and maintenance expenses became unaffordable.
That’s when they discovered Habitat for Humanity. That’s when Habitat for Humanity offered a hand up. And that’s when their lives changed.
Destiny’s account to Kiwanians brought back memories of my own as a Habitat volunteer.
In a 37-year career in communications, some of my fondest times came while working for the former Maytag Corporation and later the global manufacturer that rescued Maytag from the brink of financial disaster — the Whirlpool Corporation.
While at Maytag, I had the privilege of serving as a team member in the construction of two Habitat homes. Both were in Cleveland. I loved the work. I cherished the experience. And I learned so much from families who had so little.
When Whirlpool bought Maytag in March 2006, the ante for volunteerism skyrocketed. For years, Whirlpool and Habitat for Humanity International had shared a bond. They still do.
So, when Maytag became a welcomed member of the Whirlpool family, it gave former Maytag employees a rare chance to become a part of something really big; that is, a chance to take the Whirlpool-Habitat partnership to an all new level.
They called it Whirlpool Building Blocks and it aligned company employees from across America with Habitat volunteers from sea to shining sea.
Over the course of four years, the partnership sent hundreds of volunteers to Nashville, Phoenix, Dallas and Atlanta for community home builds that led to the construction of almost 40 Habitat for Humanity houses. Each build accounted for eight to 10 homes in the same neighborhood, and all construction was completed within one week.
It was nothing less than a toolbelt miracle.
Participating in all four weeklong home builds was a personal blessing. But the real opportunity came in working elbow to elbow with the partner families.
Their stories brought tears.
Their energy reinforced in me an understanding that people will work to better themselves, if given a chance.
Their scars, both physical and emotional, served as badges of honor for surviving a life that sometimes was uncaring and oftentimes brutal.
In Nashville during the week of Thanksgiving 2006, the team on which I served partnered with a beautiful family of five — Patrick, Patrice and their three little ones. The kids were too small to work, but Patrick nailed, sawed, painted and landscaped, and Patrice did anything she could do within her tiny frame.
In Phoenix in May 2007, we sweltered in the heat of the Arizona desert. My team worked with a single mom named Abelina and her two kids. Abelina was already working two jobs and the kids were in school. But all worked the construction site and Abelina always did it with a smile. She was a Native American from Mexico and her willingness to work to make life better for her kids was our team’s motivation.
In Dallas at Thanksgiving 2008, our team partnered with refugees from Ethiopia who fled their country due to civil war, poverty, strife and utter hopelessness. They were struggling farmers who were brought to America by a Texas church. I cannot remember their names, but their work ethic was amazing. And they wasted nothing. Once, I was hauling away a pile of broken bricks in my wheelbarrow. In broken English, the young woman begged me not to take them to the dumpster — that she would use them to line her small garden. Our construction leader assured her she would be given new bricks.
In Atlanta in May 2009, we built more homes for more families. Our team worked with a single mom and her children. Like the Whirlpool volunteers, they sweated. They toiled. They struggled. They probably even bled.
But in the end, they ... just like the families in Cleveland, Nashville, Phoenix and Dallas ... became homeowners.
Each had a need. All sacrificed to fill it. And everyone deserved it.
I have never worked shoulder to shoulder with a family who did not earn their Habitat for Humanity home. During construction they gave their “sweat equity” and are now making their mortgage payments each month.
For me, helping to build a Habitat for Humanity home is truly a life-changing experience. Always has been. Always will be.
Sure, it’s about constructing a house. But mostly it’s about building a dream — theirs and mine.
Life teaches. Times change.
Add to this mix people whose paths sometimes cross our own, and the shared course can become life-changing.