By Joseph Robertia
This holiday season, Elaine Cunningham, of Nikiski but not for much longer, will get the best gift she could have dreamed — a new home.
“I’m still in shock. It’s the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me,” she said.
Cunningham is about to move into a 1,200-square-foot home on Second Street in Kenai.
It’s not a free gift, though. Rather, it was built under the auspices of the Central Peninsula Habitat for Humanity nonprofit organization.
Established locally in 1992, and an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, the group is devoted to providing simple homes for people in need and with terms they can afford to pay. All homes, built using tax-deductible contributions of land, materials, money and labor of volunteers, are sold at cost with no-interest mortgage loans.
“This will be the 18th home we’ve built since 1992,” said Sharon Radtke, executive director of CPHFH. “And this is our third home on Second Street, where we’ve purchased five lots with the intention of building five homes.”
Radtke said that Cunningham met the three criteria established by the selection committee — currently living in unsafe conditions, earning a sustainable income of $17,000 to $28,000 per year and willing to contribute 500 hours of “sweat-equity” labor on her new home.
“I live in a trailer park with my 16-year-old son, Ruben Sepeda, so I’m happy to have a safer place to raise my boy,” Cunningham said.
While never having done construction work before, as well as being disabled and suffering several bouts of pneumonia this year alone, Cunningham did what she could to work off her 500 hours of sweat equity, but admitted she couldn’t have done it alone.
“Everyone I know chipped in for me,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without the Radtkes, my family, friends from church, and others.”
Radtke said this community support isn’t just the typical pattern for building homes through the program, it represents the program’s core value.
“Each January we have an application process, then the selection committee makes a decision in spring and as soon as the ground is thawed, usually June, we begin building with the goal to get people into their homes by Thanksgiving or Christmas,” she said.
This year, the local volunteers were joined by “Care-A-Vanners,” which are people who come to Alaska by RV to help build for several weeks. Radtke said that these Care-A-Vanners usually are retired couples with some level of building experience already, so they utilize their time locally to carry out some of the major construction on the project.
“Some of them had built 50 homes already,” she said. “They worked all day, four days a week for two weeks. They helped us get the home framed and enclosed.”
The remaining work was done by local volunteers and Cunningham’s family and friends.
“The construction chair was always there supervising, but the Cunninghams, like previous recipients, learned as they went, following instructions, moving wood and helping hammer,” Radtke said.
“The community support for this project has always been wonderful,” Radtke added. “We’ve had contractors help out for a few hours to a few days, or send crews over when they could.”
During the summer the volunteers experienced an unpleasant first for the program — robbery, with a thief stealing all the power tools that had been put in a shed for the night. But Radtke said that within a day of learning about the theft, a community member contacted her with a $1,500 check to replace the tools.
Now nearing completion, the dedication for the new home was Saturday, and Cunningham said that as soon as the gas gets hooked up and the inspector gives the place a final once-over, she and her son will move in.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” she said. “I think I won a toaster once, but that’s been about it, so I’m very thankful for this opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity for help, Radtke said.
“It’s not a hand out,” she said. “It’s a hand up.”