Cristian Wenger is only 5 years old, and already he has lived in five different homes. Now, thanks to Habitat for Humanity of Atlantic County, Wenger's next move will likely be his last.
As excited as his mother, Jessica, is to finally have a home to call her own, Cristian might even be more so.
"He's really excited, ever since the process started," said Wenger, who is a single parent. "He was there when (Habitat for Humanity of Atlantic County Executive Director Debbie Van Sant) gave us the news, and ever since then, he's been coming by the site and watching as they build, and drawing pictures of houses."
The first wall of the home, which is located on Rembrandt Way in Mays Landing, was raised Oct. 20, and a dedicated group of volunteers has been working at the site since.
Wenger applied for the home in January after her mother, Sandy DeMarco, heard Habitat was looking for prospective homeowners.
Habitat has three criteria by which it evaluates applicants. First, they must have a demonstrated need for a home. Second, they must be able to afford the mortgage, which is significantly cheaper than alternatives because it is interest-free and the houses are built mostly by volunteers, but still requires a steady paycheck. Third, they must be willing to partner with Habitat for Humanity.
This partnership means homeowners must donate 200 hours of labor or "sweat equity" through other Habitat projects before they can move into their home, and must support Habitat for a year thereafter. This mutual benefit, Van Sant said, makes Habitat for Humanity unique.
"The down payment is basically their sweat equity into the home, so the nice thing about Habitat as compared to other organizations who do this is that our families actually are investing their time, their energy into not only building their home, but other family's homes, and supporting our events," Van Sant said.
Wenger has been a model partner, so far racking up about 350 hours, Van Sant said.
Not only did Wenger struggle with finding a permanent home, but when she was able to find apartments, they were often in less than desirable neighborhoods. When she heard she had been selected by Habitat, she hurried to her future address, finding its surroundings in stark contrast to those of her previous homes.
"When (Van Sant) gave me the address I drove over here right away, and I put it in my Garmin and I drove around the block about 10 times, and I'm like, 'I'm at the wrong place, this isn't it, no,'" Wenger said. "I just kept going around and then finally, reality hit, this is beautiful, this is a great neighborhood, the neighbors are really nice. Everybody's been great."
Because construction is starting so late in the year, the Wenger home is what's called a "blitz build," meaning the exterior of the home will be built in just two weekends. While this can sometimes be a challenge, not only has a high volume of support put the project on pace to meet this goal, but it might be completed in just more than three months.
Helpers so far have included Wenger's family, some of whom traveled from Maryland and Delaware to lend a hand, as well as family friends and neighbors. Sherwin Williams of Vineland, where Wenger works, has pledged to donate labor and supplies to the effort as well. Eric Johnston, owner of Ocean City-based remodeling company JB Woodworks LLC, has lent his time as project leader.
The support of many community members she and her family don't even know, DeMarco said, has been the most overwhelming aspect of the project so far.
"I thank all of the people that volunteered," DeMarco said. "I'm just surprised how giving complete strangers can be, that's the most surprising part of all."
Looking ahead to a time when she finally has a place to call home, Wenger said Habitat's intervention in her struggle has been the biggest blessing of her life so far.
"I think the world of them, I mean, I get to give my son a home to come to, and a yard, and it's the greatest thing I could possibly think of," Wenger said.
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