When times hit their worst, she was making just under $4 an hour. She was on her own, with a 6-year-old daughter to support, so she turned to the only person she could: her stepfather.
Julie Brown lived with her daughter in a small room at her stepfather’s house for a year. It was hard, she said, because even though she had a place to stay, she never had a home.
Today, she has both. As the fifth recipient of a home from Flagler Habitat for Humanity, she finally feels the security that comes from homeownership. But more so, owning a home was what positioned her to go back to school and become a certified nursing assistant, putting her on track toward financial stability.
Brown paid off her Palm Coast home Nov. 2, 2011. She’d moved into in 1998, after Habitat for Humanity built it with her and gave her a no-interest mortgage, and after 14 years, it was officially hers.
“It was the best feeling,” Brown said. “I knew then that this is mine because I paid for it — and I helped build it. I own this, and nobody can take it from me.”
As the Flagler branch of the internationally organization celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Brown remembers how much Habitat, which partners families in need with volunteers to build homes for them, did for her.
“It’s not just about getting a house,” Brown said. “The people I came across through Habitat taught me there is better. They taught me that anything you want, you can go get.”
In 20 years, Habitat has built 75 homes for the same number of families. Each of those families aids in the construction, with each family member donating 250 hours of labor on other Habitat projects before theirs is started. They donate an additional 250 hours to working on their own home and take courses in home ownership.
It’s called sweat equity, and helping build her own home as well as the homes of others gave Brown a feeling of capability. Before, she’d taken a passive approach to life; now, she is active: She chases what she wants.
Although Habitat for Humanity is about bringing housing to those in need, building relationships is a core part of their work, said Executive Director Lindsay Elliott.
“The people we work with became a part of my family,” she said. “I’ve been to weddings; I’ve been to funerals; I’m the godmother of a child. I’m in this all the way.”
Brown echoes that sentiment. After 14 years, she’s still personally connected with Habitat staff. As a result of her relationship with the organization, she not only has a house, she has a sense of empowerment and a life she didn't think she could get any other way as a single mother. After she moved in to her new home, the staff at Habitat for Humanity encouraged her to push for more. She applied for school at what was, at the time, Daytona Beach Community College for four-month CNA program.
“I saved up a bunch of money and quit my job,” Brown said. “I took a big risk. A huge risk.”
But she was on a mission to become certified as a CNA, a job that nearly quadrupled her pay. So when her class at the local campus was canceled, she drove to DeLand four days a week for several months.
Her contacts at Habitat for Humanity helped her apply for a program that gave her vouchers for gas and told her something she’d never told herself: That with enough work, she could do it.
She graduated, found a job, and finally was able to bring a sense of stability to her daughter’s life.
“Through Habitat, I learned to come up fighting,” Brown said. “Being in my house feels better when I can look back and say, ‘I did that. I helped build that. I was a part of that.’”
Now, she is able to elevate others who were in her same situation: A few weeks ago, Brown helped lay grass at someone else's Habitat home.
'Poverty can be hidden'
Stories like these, Elliott said, are what make her job so rewarding. She stumbled into an internship with Habitat while in college, and once she started working with it, she couldn’t get enough. Though she has an endless number of stories of people living in poverty — her latest, a family that was living with little food in a trailer with no hot water and holes in the floor — she also has a long supply of stories like Brown’s.
“I think sometimes, especially in this county, poverty can be a bit hidden,” Elliott said. “It’s easy to drive around and not see the need. But if you look a bit closer, it’s there.”
Despite a reduction in donations, lower land costs have enabled Flagler Habitat for Humanity to maintain the five-house-per-year rate of construction it has held in the past.
The organization is also being creative in how it spreads its funds, Elliott said. A new program, A Brush with Kindness, focuses on neighborhood revitalization for homeowners who need improvements but may not be able to fund them.
“Especially now, it’s important that we’re able to spread our impact with smaller projects, as well,” Elliott said.
'It's all Habitat'
For some, having a home changes everything.
“Homeownership isn’t always the best answer for everybody in need,” Elliot said. “But for some people, who have moved eight times in the last five years — that’s a major upheaval in someone’s life. Studies say children tend to be healthier if they’re in their own home and their school grades improve because they’re in a settled life.”
For Brown, life without Habitat for Humanity would have never been this good.
“I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I really don’t. I do know I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Now, her daughter, Kathy, has a place to stay while she finishes school, and her 10-year-old son Dub Grant, who is autistic, has a stable environment where Brown can provide him with attention and a nurse. Giving her children a good life means everything, Brown said.
As she talked, her son came home from school and went straight to the well-stocked kitchen for a snack.
“That’s always where he goes first,” Brown said, laughing. “He has his priorities right.”
Her neighbors dropped by shortly after, asking Brown to sign for a package that would be delivered while they were out of town.
“Of course,” Brown said. “What are neighbors for?”
She returned to her living room, scanning her eyes over the walls, which she plans to paint a new color soon.
“I never thought, as a single mother, I’d be here, with such a normal life,” she said. “I didn’t think I could have any of this. Sometimes, people will even ask me how I’ve been able to do all this on my own. I tell them, ‘It’s all Habitat.’”
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24 The Lion in Winter
25 Pig Roast & Membership Drive
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25 Jam Session in the Park
High School students donate to breast cancer patients
The Flagler Palm Coast High School Future Business Leaders of America class donated $580 to Florida Hospital Flagler Foundation’s breast cancer fund, which provides screening mammograms, diagnostic studies and education to local qualified women who are uninsured and seeking assistance.
Florida Hospital Flagler gives $2,000 in scholarships
Florida Hospital Flagler's medical staff donated $2,000 in scholarships to four graduating high school students.
Premier: Rotary of Flagler County gets thumbs up
Also, Club President Rick Staly was recognized with a "Well Done" Award.