Catholics work together to build home for Habitat

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

Tanisha Cortez knows what it’s like to have an unstable home life. She grew up in Brooklyn with a mother who often couldn’t take care of her and her two brothers. Her father had his own issues. So the children alternated living with their aunt and grandmother, both of whom in Austin.
“I’ve always had anxiety about that,” she said. “I want something stable for my kids –– not to be bouncing around and worrying about going back and forth.”
Cortez, now the mother of a daughter (14) and son (11), has dreamt for years of having a home for her family. Soon that dream will come true when they move into their own home through the generosity and work of Catholic volunteers through Austin Habitat for Humanity.
Cortez’ home is the 20th home being built by the coalition that comprises the Catholic Build, which began 19 years ago. The coalition raises the funds and builds a house every year –– except for two years when they built two –– under the auspices of Austin Habitat for Humanity.
Catholic Build members are Emmaus Parish in Lakeway, St. Albert the Great, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thomas More and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Austin, St. Patrick Parish in Hutto and the Knights of Columbus Council 8156 at St. Catherine of Siena Parish. Area businesses also provide in-kind services and the IBEW Local 520 provides professional electrical services.
The coalition of volunteers also is in the process of raising $65,000 –– it needs about $22,000 –– to fund construction of the house. Construction will continue into March.
For Cortez, having a home “means everything.”
“When I talk about it, it makes me want to cry,” Cortez said as her eyes filled with tears. “If it weren’t for all these volunteers, this would not be possible. I appreciate them a lot.”
She said being a homeowner will allow her children to attend better schools and give them the stability of knowing they have their own place. Studies show low-income renters move often in search of lower rents, forcing school children change schools. 
Providing that stability for children is why Louie Caputo Jr., a parishioner of St. Albert the Great in Austin, has volunteered for eight or nine years. Habitat, he said, has “such a long list of positives,” especially for children. 
“When children live in substandard housing, they are subject to a long list of problems,” he said. “Their grades suffer, they’re out in the streets, there’s teen pregnancy. Kids who grow up in a home have better opportunities.”
Caputo encouraged more Catholic parishes and organizations in the Austin area to volunteer.
“We’ve had a hard time getting lunches,” he said. Volunteers who cannot help build the houses can always help by providing lunch for the Saturday crews.
Tom Helmer, the Catholic Build site leader who is a parishioner of St. Patrick in Hutto, said volunteers do not have to be experts at construction to help.
“What a better way to learn than doing this?” he said. 
Helmer, who began volunteering six or seven years ago, said the Catholic Build often begins in January and usually continues through Lent as part of the Lenten journey.
Doug Raymond from St. Vincent de Paul Parish has worked on all but a couple of the Catholic Build projects. He returns for the fellowship as well as the children in the families they help.
“It’s great when you see their eyes light up when you show them their bedroom after years of being crammed in a one-bedroom apartment,” he said. 
Unfortunately, he said, the waiting list for an Austin Habitat for Humanity House is two or three years. Potential homeowners are vetted and must have employment. Homeowners put down a small down payment and agree to work 300 “sweat equity” hours building homes for others before work can begin on theirs. Homeowners pay a zero-percent interest fixed rate mortgage for 30 years. In 25 years, there have been only a couple of defaults. The money paid from those mortgages helps finance construction of other homes.
Cortez, now a customer service representative at the AT&T Call Center, doesn’t mind the hard work. She has worked multiple jobs even when her children were babies and they lived in a hotel for 18 months.
Some volunteers find they gain more than they give. Sheila Kuehn, now a parishioner at St. Thomas More in Austin, met her husband, Larry, at a Catholic Build. 
“You get hooked on this,” she said as she painted some trim. “We have friendships going way back. It’s great being with like-minded people.”
Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy, who blessed the site of the house as well as the food prepared by other volunteers for the workers, said the Catholic Build is “a tribute to the generosity of the volunteers.”
“It’s about providing stability and having children get off to a successful life,” he said. “And it’s also fun!”
For more information or to donate to the Catholic Build, visit www.austinhabitat.org/catholic-faith or mail checks to Austin Habitat for Humanity, 2014 Catholic Build, 310 Comal St., Austin 78702. Those interested in becoming a volunteer (orientation and safety training are required) may register at www.austinhabitat.org/index.php/volunteer. To provide breakfast or lunch for the Habitat workers, e-mail akandell@austinhabitat.org.

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