Tracy Taylor still swells with pride when she looks around the three-bedroom home on Peach Street that she and her family have called home for 18 years.
Though modest in appearance, the dwelling is a dream castle in her eyes, filled with loving memories that began before the foundation was poured.
Back in 1994, Taylor found herself in impossible living conditions. A single mother with three small children, she no longer felt that the cramped rented mobile home on Easy Street was the proper place to raise her family. Although she had a good job as a certified nursing assistant, she was convinced she would never qualify for a home loan because she thought no one believed in her.
As it turned out, there were those who did believe, and the following year, Taylor was selected from a group of more than 50 applicants to become the third recipient of a Habitat for Humanity of Hernando-constructed home.
"I was so thrilled when they told me, I cried," Taylor, 51, said last week as she sat in her kitchen. "I had pretty much given up on ever owning my own home, but they made it happen. And I'm forever thankful."
Working mostly on weekends, a small army of volunteers spent nearly five months constructing the 1,100-square-foot frame house, which, once completed, included new appliances and some donated furniture.
Taylor and her family are among dozens of success stories for the Christian-based nonprofit organization, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. Using only volunteer labor and private donations of everything from materials to tools to cash, Habitat Hernando has built 35 new homes since 1993 and has renovated two dozen others in an effort to provide affordable housing for low-income residents.
Habitat Hernando executive director Cliff Fouts said the organization operates on the principle of believing in people, in that worthy recipients of the no-interest home loans are given an opportunity to demonstrate personal responsibility and self-discipline. In return, recipients receive the assurance that comes with the pride of home ownership.
"It's a win-win for everyone," Fouts said. "Visit any of the houses we've built and you will find they are often the pride of the neighborhood. They are built better than they have to be built."
Prospective homeowners are trained and counseled in the essentials of home ownership before construction begins. In addition, they are required to put in at least 300 hours of sweat equity. For many participants, the act of strapping on a tool belt to install drywall or roofing shingles offers a degree of personal satisfaction that can't be duplicated.
"Being able to say that you helped build the home you live in gives you a real sense of pride," said Crystal Burrell, 28, who took part in the 2010 construction of her family's new home near California Street. "I love that you're always working with upbeat people who make you feel like you're part of the family."
Habitat volunteer Ed Swierenga, who, along with his wife, Sharon, has worked on nine Habitat Hernando construction projects since 2008, said that he and his wife, neither of whom had any previous construction experience, have come to enjoy the challenges of the process. It also helps that fellow volunteers are quick to share their skills with others around them.
"It always amazes me to watch how well people come together for a common purpose," said Ed Swierenga, 63. "We laugh all the time, and it doesn't matter if it's 35 degrees or 95 degrees — everyone works together with joy in their hearts and smiles on their faces."
Fouts said that while Habitat Hernando hoped at one point to be building between four and five homes a year, a tough economy has made that goal infeasible. These days, the organization is averaging between one and two homes a year, which, depending on size, can cost between $55,000 and $60,000 to construct.
But perhaps more troubling, said Fouts, is the lack of applicants willing to go through the process to obtain a new home.
"I think there are a lot of people who figure there's a catch to it, or that their credit isn't going to be up to par," he said. "We're willing to help in any way we can, but we can't do anything if someone just gives up."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.