Hammering it Home

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Maria del Angel is a bilingual single mother with three children, Zavia, age 15, Roberto, age 13, and Alan, age 4. Del Angel, her three children and her brother currently live in a one bedroom apartment in a tough neighborhood in the heart of the Denver metro area, where the crime is so bad the kids cannot even play outside.

But that is not the worst part; del Angel and her three children are not supposed to be living in the apartment, the lease is only for del Angel's brother. So even though del Angel pays half the rent, if the landlord's suspicion is aroused, the family will have to get out.

The problem is, they have no place to go. Del Angel and her family are often homeless for days on end, living out of their small, four-door car. The family does not "live" in the apartment, they hide in it, never knowing from day to day if they will be discovered and kicked out onto the streets for good.

Thankfully for the del Angel family, this is when Habitat for Humanity stepped in. Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry. The metro Denver affiliate has been providing housing for low-income families since 1979.

The del Angel house is the Denver affiliate's first house that will be built strictly by youth and their sponsors. Last week 12 students from Steamboat Springs High School joined the effort to build the del Angel family a home.

The trip was sponsored by Gayle Dudley, the vocational director at the high school, and Gary Haberlin.

"When I started teaching, the seniors said to me that they were all leaving Steamboat and had no idea what 'big city' life was like, as far as the crime, gangs and poverty," said Dudley. "There is no comparison between talking about it and actually seeing it, so seven years ago we organized this Habitat for Humanity trip, and we have gone almost every year since then."

For many Steamboat Springs High School students, trying to imagine being homeless is like trying to imagine a Steamboat winter without snow.

"I had a hard time imagining what it would be like to be homeless," said Steamboat student Danielle Langstaff. "The media often depicts homeless people as being bitter and having no chance of leaving the streets, and on the trip I realized that many homeless people are hopeful and have great attitudes about their futures."

Some students had never come in contact with a homeless person, so meeting Maria del Angel was a reality check.

"I imagined a homeless person as some guy passed out in an alley with a cheap bottle of alcohol," said Chris Carrington, another student. "Then I found out that two-thirds of homeless people are families going through hard times, like Maria del Angel's (family)."

Del Angel is the opposite of the stereotypical homeless person. She dressed in jeans and a baseball cap just like the volunteers, and she was quick to flash her wide, bright smile, and always had a cheerful hello.

"I am just so happy my kids will have the freedom and the opportunity to play outside," she said.

Instead of being resentful of her economic situation, she is grateful to the Habitat program and all the volunteers who are ready and willing to help.

"Habitat is a great program for low-income families; you don't have to go through a lot of paperwork to apply," said del Angel. "Since I work as a waitress, it was not possible for me to afford a house without help from the Habitat program."

Habitat has set up a system for low-income families to purchase their Habitat homes with zero interest loans, and then make mortgage payments based on 25 percent of their incomes. The mortgage payments go back into the Habitat program to fund more houses.

The del Angel family will put $1,000 down on the house, and is also expected to complete 500 hours of volunteer work, or "sweat equity," on either its Habitat home, or other homes.

When del Angel was notified by Habitat that she was eligible for a house, she was working two jobs, one as a waitress at Benny's Restaurant, where she worked four or five nights a week, and another job during the day.

Del Angel quit her day job to have more time to work on her Habitat house, and her kids come out and help on the weekends.

"I am just so proud of all these kids who come to help us, when they could be at home sleeping or watching TV, and they don't even know us," del Angel said. "It's great for all the young people to be helping the community."

For the Steamboat Springs High School students, one of the most obvious results of the trip was a shift in their perception of homeless people. Many of the high school students had the opportunity to work with Maria.

"I thought homeless people were just random people wandering the streets," said Kim Chotvacs. "Maria was inspiring; she was out there working on the house with us, and you could tell she was really trying to make everything in her life work."

The Steamboat kids did everything from pounding in plywood, shingles, and the occasional finger, up on the roof, to hammering up siding, on the two days they worked on the del Angel's house. However the most useful skills they gained were not construction-related.

"I feel that not only did we accomplish something tangible by building the house, we also learned how to work together as a team, and got to know each other better," said Langstaff.

According to Habitat for Humanity, the goal of the youth house is to bring youths from all aspects of life together to make a tangible difference in the community. Habitat wants each group that works on the house to practice teamwork, learn construction skills, have fun and gain a great sense of accomplishment.

"I think it's great," said Brady Nelson, the construction supervisor of the youth house. "The kids are having a great time, learning a lot and gaining a sense of accomplishment."

The kids from the Steamboat group that worked on the youth house say the Habitat program accomplished its goal.

"It was more fun than I thought it was going to be," said Carrington. "At the end of the day, I could see what I had done; and I knew we weren't just being selfish teen-agers."

Over the years, Dudley has seen what started out as a required class trip become a life-changing experience for some students.

"I have students come back years after they went on the Habitat trip and say it was the most exciting learning experience they had in high school," said Dudley. "It is also an awesome experience for me as a teacher, because the kids are so focused on what they are learning that I have never had a discipline problem on the trip in seven years. It is really rewarding."

As for del Angel, she is thrilled about moving into her house, but like any other mother would be, she is concerned about her kids having to adjust to a new neighborhood and school.

"It will be nice to move in during the summer," del Angel said of the projected July finish date. "That way my kids will have time to make friends with the other kids in the neighborhood so they know people on the first day of school."

The students from Steamboat Springs High School came home from the three-day trip with bruised thumbs and dirty clothes, but the students did not even seem to notice. They were too busy discussing the new perspective they gained on community service, which is the ultimate goal of the Habitat for Humanity program.

Kim Chotvacs summed it up by saying, "I came away from the Habitat experience knowing that I want to be a part of the whole principle of helping people who are less fortunate, because I realized just how easy it is for anyone to end up in that situation."

Erin Enders is a senior at Steamboat Springs High School and serves as a news intern at the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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