For years, Lani Sovocool and Stephen Gary traveled a parallel course, disjointed and painful.
Sovocool suffered the indignities of an abusive marriage while raising four children. Gary battled drug and alcohol addiction, sleeping outside and eating his meals in soup kitchens.
When their paths crossed six years ago, each saw the value in the other, and they began building a life together. But despite their love, they struggled financially, especially after adding two more children to their family.
On Saturday, just in time for Christmas, they received the keys to a brand-new, five-bedroom house they built with support from Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County.
Sovocool, 41, brushed away tears as she stood on the front lawn of the sage-green bungalow with Gary, 47, and their children, surrounded by two dozen friends.
"I didn't think this would ever happen," she said. "This has been an amazing journey that has reinforced my faith in the goodness and the kindness of people."
The 1,650-square-foot house was the 158th constructed by Habitat for Humanity since the organization came to Pinellas in 1985, and was among 19 built this year. As the economy worsens, the need is sure to become greater, Habitat spokeswoman Jamie Cataldo said.
And so to help more families, the group likely will be doing more renovation in addition to new construction, and will be building more multifamily homes with an eye toward helping as many people as possible.
"These are the people who are working hard in the community, caring for our children, caring for our grandparents, and yet they can't get by," Cataldo said. "We give them this tiny bit of help and they do the rest on their own."
Sovocool first learned about the nonprofit organization that helps needy families build affordable houses about two years ago. Based in Americus, Ga., Habitat has built more than 300,000 homes for families around the world, which are sold to the families at no profit and with no interest charged.
She knew her new home would come with a catch: She and Gary would have to invest 350 "sweat equity" hours. They would earn the first 100 hours working on the houses of other people in the program; then they would work on their own house.
They also had to clear away their old debts and convince Habitat that they would be able to repay the mortgage, which in their case would amount to $625 a month — about half of what they had been paying in rent.
They already had achieved some hard-won stability. Sovocool manages a thrift store for the Salvation Army in Clearwater, and Gary drives a truck for the organization. He has been sober for nearly six years.
Construction on their home, in a quiet neighborhood in northeast Largo, began in August. The city of Largo donated the land, valued at $40,000. Crossroads Christian Church contributed nearly $18,000 in building supplies, and more than 30 volunteers contributed the labor.
Among them was Ron Delp, a retired software engineer who moved here in 2001.
"I thought, 'Life's been pretty good to me, so it would be nice to give something back,' " Delp said. "You can write a check, but when you actually volunteer, it's much more meaningful."
On Saturday, just before Crossroads Church elder Nils Giere handed Sovocool and Gary their house keys, Delp presented them with a hammer to represent the principle upon which the organization was founded.
Delp's wife, Nancy, presented the family with a Bible as a reminder of the spiritual journey the couple has traveled.
The Bible will occupy a special place in their home, the couple say, possibly on the bookcase built for them by students at Blossom Montessori School. They'll bring the hammer with them when they join the Habitat crew on another work site after the holidays.
In the meantime, they'll settle in and enjoy their first Christmas in their new home.
"I couldn't ask for a better gift than this," Sovocool said. "I'm looking forward to not having to ever move again."