Meet Our Families

First Habitat Family Took A Chance

TorresMore than 36 years ago, Ernesto and Sylvia Torres took a chance when a non-profit brand new to San Antonio, approached them with the exciting idea of owning their own home.

They were one of two low-income families being considered for the fledgling project, but it was their commitment to and belief in the organization that ultimately led the Torres family to see the completion of their new Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio home. Known then as the San Antonio Fund for Humanity, this non-profit worked side by side with the Torres family and volunteers to build the U.S.’s first Habitat for Humanity home on a parcel of land on the city’s west side.

“We didn’t have anything so I said, let’s give it a try,” Mrs. Torres said through an interpreter. “We were willing to take a chance and we believed it would happen.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Torres recall the difficulty organizers had securing the needed funds to build the home on Hidalgo Street. The land’s location also posed a problem in finding a family who wanted to live there. The Torres family was more than happy to remain in the same area they already resided in – as they lived in a dilapidated three-room house just a short distance away.

There were also language barriers. Habitat officials would rely on the Torres’s 7-year-old son to translate during meetings.

They began working with the organizers and volunteers in 1976. Mr. and Mrs. Torres and their four young children moved in when the home was completed in 1978.

It was the first new home on Hidalgo Street, the older run-down homes having been demolished.

“We are proud of ourselves…there are people who have lived here all their lives and still don’t have a home of their own,” explained Mrs. Torres, who moved to San Antonio from Coahuila, Mexico with her husband in 1969.

Sitting at her kitchen table with her husband and youngest son, Rene, who was born after they family moved into the home, Mrs.Mementos Torres remembers every moment of her Habitat experience in great detail, right down to being able to produce the original copy of their first, hand-written payment schedule.

“We paid $400 down,” she said. Their payments began at only $50 per month and eventually, because of taxes, rose to about $120 a month. Despite a few struggles over the years, the family was able to pay their home off early in 2006.

Mr. and Mrs. Torres remember where they came from almost as vividly as the memories they have made in their Habitat home. Original HomeTheir rental house in San Antonio was small with walls that didn’t block summer’s heat or the cold winds of winter. With only three rooms, the family of six lived in very cramped conditions.

“The living room, bedroom and kitchen were basically one room … we had a stove and a little table with two chairs,” recalled Mrs. Torres, looking now proudly around the kitchen she has prepared meals in for 32 years. “It was tight, but everything was in order.”

Rummaging through boxes and cabinets filled with family mementos with his parents, the family’s youngest son talks about his father and mother, and their commitment to their family.

"They feel proud they were able to do this,” he said. “We have a home because of them…My father always said ‘if you don’t want it, you’ll never have it."

“We are strong,” his mother chimed in, in Spanish, as she helped her husband retrieve a box of photos from a kitchen cabinet.

Mr. Torres, a painter by trade, performed many hours of required sweat equity while his home was being built. Since that time, the couple says their affordable payments allowed them to be able to add an additional living area, bedroom and bathroom.

Today, only the home’s interior bears resemblance to the original structure. Now, both 61, and with all of their children on their own, they still have future plans for more improvements.

“My father knew how to do a lot of things … and if he didn’t, he learned how,” said Rene, who also now owns a home. “He is a very hardworking man.”

Mr. Torres, a normally very quiet man, talks animatedly about his home and Habitat for Humanity. He says the organization changed his life and allowed him to provide a good home for his family.

“I tell other people to work with Habitat and get involved. It’s possible [to own a home] if you are willing to work for it…I feel so proud.”

He is also proud to say he is the first Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio homeowner.

Special Words from Homeowner Adam Martinez

Martinez "I would like to begin by thanking Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio and all that the organization does for the community. Also, thank you for allowing me and my family the opportunity to express our gratitude and appreciation for your help in making it possible to realize the fulfillment of homeownership. For many citizens of this country, owning a house is a big part of the American dream. Yet, for many, the realism of homeownership seems farfetched from ever becoming a reality during these tough economic times, even more so for a single income family of four struggling to make ends meet.

"My family’s encounter with Habitat was purely on impulse. My wife (Veyanira) noticed new houses being built not far from where we currently live and one day decided to check out the neighborhood. It was there that she met Pete, a house leader for Habitat, and after a brief introduction about the organization, Pete gave her directions to the office where she could pick up an application. Little did I realize the voyage we were about to embark upon; a journey that would change our lives forever, not only with the prospect of owning a house, but also by the people with whom we would work side by side to make it possible.

"We filled out the application, submitted it, and within a few days thereafter we received a letter from Habitat by mail, notifying us that we had been pre-approved to participate in the program. I became emotionally overwhelmed. It was breathtaking just knowing about the opportunity which had been given to us! The chance of owning a house! A place we can call a home of our own! If someone were to ask “what a home meant to me?” I would tell them, a home is where love exists; it is a place where I can raise my children; a place of belonging, all the while giving us a sense of security and warmth. A home is where lifelong memories are made.

"Next, it was time to settle the “sweat equity.” From day one it was go, go, go. From working at the warehouse cleaning or pulling materials for house orders to restocking the store, working at the construction site helping with the assembly of walls, hanging doors, installing windows, laying roof shingles or painting – there was always something to do and lessons to be learned. It made me feel productive and a part of a team with purpose.

"A special thanks to my house leader, Pete, for all of his hard work, dedication and support. What a job! Thank you, Valero, for your sponsorship, both financially and physically. Thanks again to the volunteers. Know that your hard work will forever remain in our minds and in our hearts (that would be every time I look at my house!). Through our combined efforts we have made a house into a home.

"The desire and willingness to accomplish my family’s goals has made our experience with Habitat meaningful – leaving us with an enhanced sense of purpose, as well as strengthened unity amongst my family, friends and others who helped build our home and our community.

"Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio is holding steadfast to their mission of “working in partnership with God's people in need to build simple, decent and affordable houses... thereby witnessing God's love in action.” This mission is truly symbolic of what this organization represents, and is without a doubt recognized by all who have had the privilege to be a part of this team. I thank God, for all those who volunteer their time unselfishly, giving of themselves that which money cannot buy – the kindness of one’s heart and soul. Ultimately, their intent of seeing others prosper is admirable, and will always be appreciated by me and my family as we journey to Emmaus Trail. We feel truly blessed."

Music Is An Escape for One Habitat Youth

Escalera Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio homeowner and single mother Priscilla Escalera believes that homeownership is good for her family. And, as she watches her children grow and thrive she says she knows purchasing her Habitat home was the right choice. “It’s made such a good impact on the kids,” she said. Escalera, who moved into her home about 2.5 years ago, is mom to three: 15-year-old Elijah, 13-year-old Kaylah, and 9-year-old Allison.

While each of the Escalera children has their own achievements and pursuits, it was her 15-year-old son she talked about last year (2009) from her home in HFHSA’s Palo Alto community.

“Before we moved here, he was giving us a little bit of trouble in school and his grades were dropping,” she explained.

But that has changed now. Elijah, then a freshman at Highlands High School, has become an accomplished musician, playing violin in his school’s orchestra, and making straight A’s, said his mother.

“I’m so proud of him,” Priscilla said. “When he first started, I didn’t think he would stick with it…but when he played, his whole demeanor would change.”

“I don’t have to think when I play,” said Elijah who has been playing violin since sixth grade and now composes some of his own music.

“It’s just him and the music,” his mother added. “It keeps him busy.”

She attributes his success to his own talent, but also to the security and space their Habitat home provides them.

“We shared an apartment with my parents [before],” she said. “We all slept on one bed.”

In their new home, each child has his or her own space to study and grow. Priscilla is glad to have provided such a good environment for her children, especially in a day and time when there are so many ways they can get in trouble. Elijah has performed with a quartet at San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre, performs at weddings and other functions, and most recently performed with the San Antonio Orchestra for a Cinco de Mayor concert. He was also selected for the San Antonio Independent School District’s Honor Orchestra.

“I just want to play and write my own music,” said Elijah, who hopes to make music his career.

Meet Leticia Hatol

Leticia Having lived in a string of rental homes, most currently in Section 8 housing, Leticia Hatol is looking forward to the completion of her Habitat home. “I want a stable life for my kids,” she said one recent January weekend as construction on her home was beginning. Hatol and her family – husband David and children, 13-year-old Joshua and 10-year-old Sarina – have lived in three different rentals in the last few years. Memories in some of those homes are not exactly good, she said.

“We lived in a duplex … we had no front yard. The kids could only play in the back,” she said of a previous home they rented. “The neighbors … they were junkies. We would find needles. When we took out the trash or went out, we had to keep looking down so we wouldn’t step on needles.”

The fear of stepping on needles wasn’t the only problem with that house.

“The air conditioner didn’t really work. It would get really hot,” she said. “We would also get rats in the house.”

Although the landlord would take measures to kill the rodents, dead rats and heat posed other problems.

“They would die in the walls and smell,” Hatol said. “I just didn’t like the rats.”

Hatol, the main provider for her two young children and disabled husband, said she likes the house they are currently living in, but knows owning her own home – and especially the affordable mortgage payments – will be so much better for her family.

Leticia“This house is 100 times better than the ones we’ve lived in before,” she said. “Right now we are paying $651 for my rent and it is going up to $750. I don’t want to spend that much on something we are not going to keep.”

She will pay approximately half of her rent payment for her Habitat monthly mortgage payment. The savings she will have from her new mortgage payment will allow her to spend that money on other needs of her family. As an added bonus, owning her home will offer the stability for her children that she has been dreaming of. Hatol also said she will be proud of knowing she has worked really hard to provide a home for her family.

“It’s good. It does make me feel tired,” she said of her work to complete the required 300 hours of sweat equity.

Her days generally begin very early. She rises at 4:30 a.m. to have her husband to dialysis treatment by 5:30 a.m. The day ends with her 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. shift as a senior beauty advisor at a local Walgreens.

“I do a lot for my family...but it’s my job,” she said smiling. “And I try to get a little sleep when I can.”

Meet the Swank Family

Swank Kathy Swank always wanted to be a teacher. It was a goal she kept in sight even though she confronted obstacles along the way. Before her son was born, Kathy lived with her mother, and paid no rent, but she knew the living conditions were not suitable for child-rearing-the paint was lead-based and there was no yard. She realized she would have to move and the expense of housing would force her to postpone her education until she could afford to go back to school. Then she was fortunate enough to partner with Habitat for Humanity and purchase her own home-a first step toward providing a new life for her son and herself.

Kathy’s brother shared her dream of completing college. Unselfishly, she decided to help him first and she supported him through his last few semesters before he received his engineering degree. Her brother believed the only way to repay his sister was to provide her the same opportunity. He made it possible for her to go back to school. Within two years she had earned her bachelor’s degree in education.

Kathy says, “None of this would have been possible if I was not blessed with an affordable mortgage payment through Habitat. It has allowed me to save money and now I can go back to school to receive my master’s degree in counseling so I can become a school counselor.

Meet the Lerma Family

Lerma Consider walking in Jesse and Guadalupe Lerma’s shoes for a moment. Imagine spending 24 trying years living in a house infested with termites. Every day you fear the fragile boards will crumble, leaving your family nowhere to live. The Lermas did not request repairs because they feared the landlord would increase the rent. They already were struggling to pay the $480 a month rent. Home for them was not really a place they wanted to be.

Now almost ten years later Guadalupe reminisces in her living room about what she describes as “miracles”. She can truly say, “I thank God every day for our home.” The Habitat program not only provided her family a safe and affordable home, but also helped reinforce the fundamental values she and her husband so desperately wanted to instill in their children.

Most of all – their Habitat home has provided stability for their children. Jesse Jr. had seen the determination and hard work of his parents and the volunteers who helped build their affordable home. His parent’s determination became his own. Jesse Jr. dreamed of going to college but knew tuition costs were too high for his parents to afford.

But the Lermas vowed to make his dream a reality. With the extra money saved from paying their affordable mortgage along with the sale of Guadalupe’s homemade cookies and tamales the Lermas had enough money to help their son pay for his tuition and books at UTSA so he could receive his Bachelor’s degree. “These past 9 years in our home have been a blessing and miracle for us that we can enjoy for years to come,” Guadalupe says.

Meet the Soto Family

SotoSometimes Juan and Eva Soto look down at their newborn son and revel in the security they now are able to offer him. They sleep easier knowing he and his big sisters will always have a place to call home. They feel that moving into their Habitat home has had an extremely positive impact on their children. Now their children have a real yard to play in and actually invite their neighboring friends over to play. Prior to discovering Habitat for Humanity, the Soto’s daughters, Bernice Elizabeth and Samantha, spent the majority of their “play” time inside their small 2-bedroom apartment.

The apartment complex was in a crime-ridden area and it was very unsafe for them to play outside. Juan and Eva wished they could provide a better environment for their children but always knew that they would not qualify for a home because of their low-income.

That all changed after they built their Habitat home. Now their children have a yard to play in and the opportunity to interact with other kids. The Sotos have seen a difference in their children. Their youngest daughter, Samantha has become the “social butterfly” whereas Bernice Elizabeth is still very shy. Juan and Eva attribute this to the fact that Samantha was able to interact with other children at a younger age. The Soto’s are very grateful to Habitat and its supporters for helping them build a healthy and safe house to raise their three children.

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