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Dreams Begin Anew on a Half-Acre Lot

For three families, Habitat for Humanity homes are life- changers in Costa Mesa. The L.A. chapter builds its 100th.

November 17, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

It has been almost two years since the three families, from different walks of life, moved into Habitat for Humanity homes on a half-acre lot in Costa Mesa. And they've discovered that with new homes come new lifestyles and new opportunities in ways big and small.

For Sean Hwin, it's not having to share the kitchen in the Fountain Valley boarding house where he, his wife and two children lived for six years.

For single-dad Dan Samuelson, it's being out of his father's Lakewood house and having his own place, so his children can have boisterous birthday parties.

And for Felimon and Elena Coria, it's the joy of tucking their eight children into their own beds, versus cramming them into the two beds of their small apartment in San Clemente.

Their stories are not unusual in Habitat for Humanity. The self-help organization has repeated the tale in some fashion or other 100 times in Orange County in 15 years and 1,000 times in the state. The drill is essentially the same each time: coordinating volunteers and donations so homes can be constructed at minimal cost and then be presented to needy, credit-worthy families, who pay no-interest mortgages based on the value of the structures.

The Los Angeles chapter of Habitat for Humanity celebrated the completion of its 100th home Saturday. The property, on East Century Boulevard, will go to a single mother and her two children.

Elenore Williams, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity, Los Angeles, said it has taken the chapter 12 years, and "thousands" of volunteers, to build those 100 homes, most of which are in Watts. She also praised sponsors who have funded the organization's work. "It has taken all of those things to reach the huge milestone we're celebrating today," Williams said.

Recipients of Habitat houses in Los Angeles must earn 50% or less of the median income for residents of Los Angeles County and must be living in substandard housing.

In Orange County, the completion of the three homes in February 2002 was marked by a traditional Habitat blessing ceremony, and the new occupants opened their homes to their friends, family, contractors, volunteers and people who donated building supplies.

More than a year later, the three families share a tight-knit community, watching their children grow in a roomy and safe setting. Not long ago, it was a different story for each of the families.

Hwin, a 46-year-old facility maintenance manager, recalls the pain he felt watching his teenage daughter, Vicky, retreat to one of the two rooms the family rented for $700 a month in a boarding house. Money was tight, and gloom and anxiety settled on everything.

Vicky would come home from school every day and just sit on the bed, lonely, not talking except to her Barbie dolls, Hwin said. It broke his heart.

He and his wife argued; the stress and worry caused him, already thin, to shrink to about 105 pounds. Now that they have a kitchen, he said, he has regained about 15 pounds.

They moved into the three-bedroom Habitat home with virtually no belongings. But after donations, gifts and some savvy purchases, the family has furnished the home, even getting a great deal on an old upright piano from Habitat's Re-Store in Santa Ana.

Hwin worried whether the family would fit into the Costa Mesa neighborhood. Those doubts were especially acute when his daughter was about to enroll at Newport Harbor High School.

"That school's for rich people," Hwin remembers telling the family. Maybe it would be better if Vicky went "to a school for our class."

Habitat workers insisted that she attend the school, but there were other issues. Vicky fretted that her clothes weren't good enough, that she wasn't cool, popular.

"I said, 'Patience. If you want to have friends, you have to make friends. Work hard, you'll have a bright future,' " Hwin told his daughter.

"Now she's changed. Her face is brighter. I'm so happy," Hwin said. He gets a similar thrill watching his young son, Austin, "running around here. He has a place to run. I am so blessed," he says.

Samuelson, a burly 44-year-old courier with an easy smile, has had full custody of three of his four children since 1993. For a time, they all lived with his father. "No slumber parties, no sleepovers," he said of the rules there.

"When I was struggling at my dad's, I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere," Samuelson said. "But now, the struggle here is nicer. You're struggling for yourself, you're accomplishing something."

It wasn't easy. His application for a Habitat home was rejected five times and he had given up.

Someone at his Irvine church challenged him to fill out yet another application. He did, and this time it was accepted, based on his financial needs and a successful credit check. He had been one of 400 applicants for the three homes.

"I was floored," he said.

His daughters Elysabeth, 16, and Andi, 14, and son, Mikey, 11, can now have friends over, and they're still talking about Elysabeth's Sweet 16 birthday party, with tiki torches lining the driveway.

For the big Coria family, a Habitat home means room to stretch, and the chance for Felimon, a 41-year-old school custodian, to tend to his garden of tomatoes, carrots and squash.

The children talk about the joys of living in a five-bedroom home after having lived in a two-bedroom apartment.

"Now I share a room with my sister and we have our own separate beds," said Laura, 9.

Outside, her father sits on the front porch and shares carne asada with neighbors.

"We feel like we are part of the neighborhood," he said, "like we've been here a long time."

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