Rebuilding lives
Gwinnett Habitat to celebrate 20 years

LAWRENCEVILLE - Bianca Baker said it's the best thing that's ever happened to her family.

Baker, her husband, Benjamin, and their four children received a home from Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity last year.

"Habitat not only taught us about how to build a house, they taught us how to build our lives," Baker said.

While the family was required to put in time working to build a home - Gwinnett Habitat calls this sweat equity and requires it of every Habitat homeowner - they also attended free workshops on topics from car and home maintenance to budgeting. The Bakers also met with financial advisers to prepare for the responsibility of owning and paying for their home, which is in Lawrenceville.

"It was a blessing," Baker said of her family's Habitat home.

The organization that has helped the Bakers and more than 80 other families to realize the dream of owning a home is celebrating 20 years of fulfilling its mission with an anniversary festival Saturday.

What started as an all volunteer initiative building one to two houses a year has grown into an organization with seven full-time staff members and a goal to build 12 homes this year - three homes have been completed so far in 2008 - in providing affordable housing to Gwinnett families and individuals.

Through donations and sponsors and the work of volunteers, Gwinnett Habitat has built 86 homes in its 20 years and will be completing its 87th house in September.

The organization is also constructing town homes, which are set to be finished in December, to create the first Habitat town home community on Pounds Drive in Tucker - also the site of Gwinnett Habitat's anniversary festival Saturday.

A Habitat home build is usually completed in 12 consecutive Saturdays with teams of about 30 people, including volunteers, Habitat supervisors and Habitat homeowners. A crew of mostly retired individuals who have construction experience and skills works every Thursday to keep construction on schedule and to help prepare for the larger groups that work Saturdays.

Once a Habitat home is finished and a family moves in, they are responsible for a monthly mortgage, which averages between $300 to $500, and those funds are rolled back to build additional houses.

Families selected to receive a Habitat home meet strict income guidelines - earning between 25 and 60 percent of the average county income, which Beth Stubbings, Gwinnett Habitat's director of development, said for a family of four is between $25,000 and $40,000 a year.

"They all pay a down payment and a monthly mortgage," she said. "They're working just as hard to earn equity in their home as any of us."

Joyce Heflin, a resident of Snellville, received her Habitat home about 4 years ago. Heflin had lived with her mother in a home they didn't own before she was told about Gwinnett Habitat.

"I did it and became a homeowner," Heflin said. "I would tell anybody if they don't have a home, try to go through Habitat."

Lynn Weekly, the construction and volunteer coordinator for Gwinnett Habitat, has been with the organization as a staff member for 11 years, the longest of any of the current staff, and she was a volunteer for two years prior to that, along with her husband.

Weekly said that while Gwinnett Habitat once struggled to drum up volunteers in its early years, there is now a waiting list of groups that want to help.

"It's a nice change from struggling to find people to help," she said. "All of our volunteers are vital to our program."

Gwinnett Habitat wants to honor those volunteers at Saturday's anniversary festival, which will include performances by local musicians with Music for Charities - Snellville resident Tammy Allen headlining the event with contemporary jazz tunes. There will also be free art activities and moonwalks for kids, while local restaurants will sell food and drinks and vendors will be selling various wares, from purses and jewelry to customized T-shirts and kids' crafts, with a portion of the proceeds going to Gwinnett Habitat.

For more information on Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity and the anniversary festival, visit www.habitatgwinnett.org.

SideBar: If you go

What: Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity's festival celebrating its 20th anniversary

When: 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: 210 Pounds Drive in Tucker

Cost: Free and a donation of any amount will be appreciated

More information: www.habitatgwinnett.org