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A place to call home: The Pope Francis House’s new homeowner looking forward to a new start

Latasha is already dreaming about the housewarming party.

It's going to include a barbecue and backyard games with friends and family. She's been looking at patio sets -- a place for her guests to sit and enjoy the crisp weather come this September.

That's when The Pope Francis House -- the latest project by Habitat for Humanity St. Louis and Latasha's new home -- is expected to be completed. Located in the Tiffany neighborhood of south St. Louis, the home honors Pope Francis for his commitment to social justice and reinvigorating the Catholic Church. It also has provided an opportunity for people of different faiths to work together toward a common goal.

It's going to be a new start for Latasha, who divorced last year, and her three children. (Latasha requested her last name not be used for the story.) She became a mother at 17, went on to earn a degree in social work and now serves as a case manager for people with mental illness -- all while taking care of her children, now ages 16, 10 and 2. She's gone back to school to get a master's degree in counseling.

The home she's been renting doesn't afford much space for her and the children. Her 10-year-old sleeps in the dining area, and Latasha doesn't often have people over because of the lack of space. A friend told her about Habitat for Humanity and suggested she apply; it came at just the right time.

"I was praying, 'God, we've got to get out of this house,'" Latasha said.

This will be her first time as a homeowner -- mortgage and all.

"I could have been known as a statistic. But I function better when I have a lot on my plate."

Every Saturday, Latasha comes to the home site to put in her sweat equity volunteer hours, one of the conditions of owning a Habitat for Humanity home.

She joked that she's afraid of heights, but that fear was put to rest as she learned how to install siding on the two-story home. She's also helped build the framing for the walls and has assisted wherever she's needed. The other volunteers "explain what they're doing," Latasha said. "The education piece of this is awesome. I'm learning a lot; they've been very patient with me."

Homeowners, who will have a down payment and a mortgage, also attend life skills classes on financial literacy and home management. "Most of the time, these are first-generation homeowners, and we want to make sure they're ready to become a successful home buyer," said Habitat for Humanity St. Louis CEO Kimberly McKinney.

Once homeowners have a stable place to call home, they can focus their energy on advancing their lives in other ways, said McKinney. Maybe it's additional job training to get a better position, or returning to school or focusing on their children's education. "It's giving them an opportunity. It helps stabilize them for other things."

The Catholic community has been instrumental in helping with The Pope Francis House. Volunteers have come from St. Francis Xavier "College" Church in Midtown and St. Cronan Parish and St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in south St. Louis -- just a stone's throw across I-44 from the house.

Jennifer Dunn, a member of St. Margaret of Scotland's Living Justice Committee, was tasked with rounding up volunteers. Dunn helped at the blitz build in April and worked side by side with Latasha.

The home is "being built in honor of our current pope -- his basis is social justice and making sure that the Church continues to address those types of issues," Dunn said. "It's really drawn a lot of people to this particular project because it's giving us a way to put our faith into action."

The Pope Francis House is among five houses being built -- all two stories with brick facades -- in the Tiffany Neighborhood behind Cardinal Glennon and St. Louis University hospitals.

Pope Francis House

An anonymous donor has given $60,000 to The Pope Francis House, and seeks to inspire the St. Louis community to raise at least $40,000 more for construction.

One of the bigger donations so far has come from St. Louis University's Habitat for Humanity St. Louis Campus Chapter, which donated $10,000 in May, according to president Kendra Patton. Student members, faculty and staff have volunteered their time working at the build site since the spring.

The campus club raised funds throughout the school year through activities including a Trick or Treat for Change event at Halloween, a Reindeer Rooftop Run 5K and a benefit concert with campus a capella groups. The club also sponsors an event in the fall called Cardboard City, in which students sleep overnight in cardboard boxes to bring homeless awareness to the campus.

Approximately 95 percent of Habitat for Humanity's budget is raised through local efforts, including grants and donations from companies, faith-based organizations and individuals, according to Habitat's CEO Kimberly McKinney.

Volunteer opportunities on the construction site are open to those 16 years old or older. For more information on youth engagement opportunities, contact Beckie Fingland at beckie@habitatstl.org or (314) 371-0400, ext. 621.

For information on group or individual volunteer opportunities or fundraising for The Pope Francis House, contact Katie Harder at katie@habtiatstl.org or (314) 371-0400, ext. 629.

Or visit www.habitatstl.org/popefrancishouse. 

The need for a home

Approximately 1,000 families reach out every year to Habitat for Humanity St. Louis.Habitat for Humanity cites a study, "Impact of Homeownership and Affiliate Experiences" (by Elissa Baker, et al) which shows how a stable home can become a catalyst for other successes and benefits for homeowners and their families.

97 percent report an improvement in their family's quality of life

92 percent report feeling better about themselves since becoming a homeowner

74 percent see an improvement in their family's overall health

57 percent choose to further their education

53 percent experience improved job opportunities

Source: www.habitatstl.org 

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