WHITESBORO – Five years ago, Abigail Garcia, Angel Santiago, and their three children sat in front of a Rio Grande department store with suitcases at their sides.
The Garcia-Santiago family arrived from Puerto Rico five days earlier but had not yet found a permanent home when they were forced to leave the place they were staying.
Garcia was a Wildwood native who went to Wildwood High School, but her family spoke no English and had never been to the United States before. They were homeless until, Garcia said, “God sent a friend.”
A member of their church found them shelter through nonprofit Family Promise. Santiago got a job and saved money until they could rent an apartment. Then they applied for home ownership through Habitat for Humanity Cape May County.
On Feb. 10, the Executive Director Shawn Lockyear, of the county Habitat chapter, handed the Garcia-Santiago family the key to their new, stick-built, four-bedroom rancher on Reeves Street. It was the ninth Habitat house completed on land donated by Middle Township since 2011.
“They have come so far, to go from where we met them in Wildwood with their suitcases and no place to go, and now to be homeowners,” said Laurie Johnson, executive director of Family Promise.
Like the Garcia-Santiago family, construction of the Reeves Street house faced uncertainty. Thieves stole nearly $4,000 in power tools from a trailer at the construction site while volunteers were away celebrating Christmas.
The house’s completion was halted until residents, the Ocean First Foundation and Avalon Lions made enough donations to replace all of the stolen tools within a few weeks.
“They just opened their hearts, and looked in their sheds, and came out and brought us tools that they hadn’t been using, or new tools,” said Cheryl Spalding, volunteer coordinator for the county Habitat chapter.
Since construction began in August, 124 volunteers put 3,800 hours into the Reeves Street house, according to Lockyear.
Garcia, Santiago, and their children Tanya, 13, Jaydiel, 10, and Mileydi, 9, contributed 300 hours of “sweat equity” by framing, sheet rocking, hanging doors, painting, and clearing debris.
Despite having no prior construction knowledge, Evan Carlsen, 26, of Ocean View, began volunteering at Habitat in October, working on the Reeves Street house Tuesdays and Thursdays 8 a.m.-3 p.m. He spent the summer working in Stone Harbor but wanted to keep busy after the season ended.
“After I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve always wanted to give back,” he said. “I’m so glad I did it.”
Construction Manager Robert "Budd" Springer said local contractors like Jonathon Hand Excavating, Woodland Landscaping, and Tri-County Building Supplies offered their services for free or discounted prices.
He said the house was built to Energy Star certification standards, with extra insulation, insulated windows and LED light bulbs.
“We have to make sure this house is affordable in the 30-year lifespan of a mortgage,” Springer said.
Garcia and Santiago were one of 70 local families to apply for a Habitat house. They were selected based on need, willingness to partner with Habitat, and their ability to pay property taxes, insurance, and their monthly zero-interest mortgage.
Habitat houses are sold to families at less than market value, according to their website.
Friends and volunteers toured the completed rancher at an open house Feb. 10, bringing housewarming gifts like homemade blankets, bedroom decor, and books. Middle Township Deputy Mayor Jeffrey DeVico gave the family a certificate.
Scarf It Up Cape May donated a crochet blanket. That blanket, made by volunteer Linda Straub, continues the tradition of presenting each new house owner with an heirloom quality gift, according to Meryl Williams.
Scarf It Up Cape May is a charitable organization that creates blankets, and articles of clothing which are donated to organizations throughout our area. People of all skill levels are welcome, and instruction will be provided as needed.
Springer is eager to start building another house in Middle Township.
“We need another lot,” he said. “Let’s keep the momentum going because if we don’t, we lose volunteers. They go find something else to do.”
Spalding said they would need “as much help as they can” on the next house.
“Even if you don’t have the skills that you think you need," she said. “You’re going to be standing side-by-side with someone who is going to help you to learn how to build a house from the ground up.”
To contact Taylor Henry, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(ED. NOTE: Scarf It Up Cape May meets at Atherstorm Gaming, Sandman Boulevard, North Cape May. Meetings are held on Sunday 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Tuesday 11 a.m.-1 p.m., and Wednesday 7-9 p.m. For information, call Fran at 972-1119.)