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For Good: Faith Build creates homes for Tampa Bay area families

Donna Harding, volunteer from St Michaels The Archangel Catholic Church, works on the Acevedo family home.

Ellen Poniewaz (left) and Nancy Doherty (right),  volunteer from St Michaels The Archangel Catholic Church, works on the Acevedo family home.

Messages to the Acevedo family were written on the studs of their home.

Owning a home seemed like a dream always out of reach for Julio and Billie Acevedo.

Financial and health issues kept the couple and their blended family of four children in government-subsidized housing. It wasn’t the best neighborhood in Largo, prone to crime and with little space for the kids to play. 

Billie Acevedo figured she had nothing to lose when she filled out an application for a new home with Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County. That decision turned out to be a life-changing one.

Early next month, the family moves into their brand-new residence in Largo. The 1,400-square-foot house, with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a big yard, is one of about 30 houses built by the nonprofit in the last year.

But this one represents a new kind of partnership, one that the Pinellas branch of Habitat for Humanity plans to continue.

Called a “Faith Build,” the project utilized some 200 volunteers from 16 local congregations of different denominations. Eight of those churches provided $50,000 toward the construction.

It’s the first time the faith community has joined up to fund a Pinellas Habitat home, says spokesperson Robin Macar.

“We did one on a much smaller scale in 2011 with three churches. This time, we went for a bigger vision. And the response was incredible,” Macar says. “Habitat is all about bringing the community together. This project took that to the next level.”

Like all of the Pinellas Habitat houses, this one is block construction. It also is energy efficient – the charity has won the coveted national Energy Star Award from the Environmental Protection Agency for its track record of building sustainable houses  – and is handicap accessible, addressing some of the Acevedos’ physical challenges.
And there are two other touches to support that this project is truly built on faith, Macar says. 

A Bible signed with good wishes from the volunteers was placed in the home’s foundation when the concrete was poured, and several of the studs throughout the house bear handwritten inspirational messages from the donors.
“These are lasting reminders that this house has a special blessing,” she says.

Even the location hints of its predestination: The new home is located off Rosary Road.

Restoring faith in humanity

Julio Acevedo says witnessing strangers build the house in their spare time has restored his faith in humanity.

“I grew up in rough circumstances. I had a lot of mistrust of people,” he says. “My life really turned around when I met Billie. All I’ve wanted to do is provide our family a safe environment so our kids will have roots and stability.”

Recipients of Habitat homes donate sweat equity (either in their home or other projects) as well, and also must take required classes in homeownership. They have to make a down payment and make timely mortgage payments, based on the reduced loan amount.

Billie Acevedo says they don’t know their monthly payment yet, but it will be lower than the $864 they currently pay for their rental unit. She works as a certified nursing assistant, and her husband, a former pool builder, collects disability due to limited mobility and pain from suffering a broken neck on two occasions. Now he’s a stay-at-home dad for their four children, running the household while Billie works.

“Julio and I help each other all the time so we can keep moving forward, says Billie, who has struggled with a stroke, fibromyalgia, a concussion and multiple surgeries. “But to have this support system from people we don’t even know is so humbling.”

Martin Barrett, a volunteer from St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Clearwater and a member of the Knights of Columbus, says he got involved with the project because it’s a “great way to show others how much you care.”
“We’ve got people from all walks of life, working side by side,” he says. “And the folks running the program come with all kinds of knowledge and experience, so you can really learn on the job.”

Another bonus: He’s become friends with fellow parishioners he used to just see in the pews on Sundays. Now they get together outside church.

“You make a bond, working on something like this,” he says.

Fellow St. Michael’s member Donna Harding says this was her fourth Habitat house. She chose this charity for her volunteer work because of its pledge to give recipients a “hand up, not a hand out.” 

“Plus, I’m learning skills I never thought I would even tackle,” she says. “There’s a real sense of accomplishment when you challenge yourself like this.”

Honoring Pope Francis

Across the Bay, another house with a faith foundation is under construction.

In June, Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County got a $60,000 donation toward a new build from an anonymous donor, who requested that the house would be named after Pope Francis as a way to honor the pontiff. The nonprofit is raising the additional $50,000 to complete it.

“That was a first for us,” acknowledges Spokesperson D. Shennell Reed. The Hillsborough Habitat, founded in 1987, typically builds about five or six houses a year.

Last month, volunteers from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa and Saint Leo University raised the walls on the Seminole Heights house. The anonymous donor also asked that Catholic and non-Catholics work together throughout the construction phase the construction as a “unifying, celebratory opportunity” to reach a common goal.

In September, a single mother and her 2-year-old daughter will move into the three-bedroom home.

Just weeks from moving into her first home, a grateful Billie Acevedo says she feels her prayers have been answered.

“Even in my darkest hours, I’ve felt God’s presence, right beside me,” she says. “He’s been whispering in my ear all along to have faith and not give up. Now he has sent all these people of faith to make this dream come true. I am so, so thankful.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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