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Giving thanks during a time of pandemic

Waveney Ann Moore

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Devin and Carissa Harrell with their children, D’aja, 8, Devin Jr. 5, Deondra, 4, and Dania, 3. Photos: Habitat For Humanity

It isn’t easy to escape the seemingly universal despair of unemployment, food lines, sickness and death being wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet millions of Americans are trying to do just that, trekking to grandmother’s house, or somewhere similarly comforting – at the risk to their own lives and those of others – in their yearning for Thanksgivings of yesteryear.

While some may clamor for the end of a nightmarish 2020, for others, it’s been a year of happy memories, from weddings that still managed to take place, to babies being born, and long-held goals that were achieved.

I chatted with several new Habitat for Humanity homeowners this week and couldn’t help being buoyed by their gratitude for simple, taken-for-granted pleasures. For instance, being able to set up a grill to cook in their own backyard, their children’s joy at having a bedroom they didn’t have to share and the added bonus of a safe place to play outdoors.

For Devin and Carissa Harrell, who just moved with their four children, D’aja, 8, Devin Jr. 5, Deondra, 4, and Dania, 3, into their St. Petersburg home, it’s meant leaving behind an apartment with a leaky roof and settling in to create new, happy memories.

With Thanksgiving just days away, several of the new homeowners were looking forward to celebrating the holiday in a house they now own.

Kendra Lamb was still moving in with her two boys, Jayden, 11, and Kason, 2, when she took my call. She had received the keys to her new three-bedroom, two-bath home near Gibbs High School a day earlier. The Pinellas Park Middle School teacher was anticipating a special Thanksgiving. “Now I can cook in my own kitchen and now I can invite my family over,” she said.

For Shadai Simmons, who works for Ready for Life in Largo, the agency that helped her when she aged out of foster care, owning her own home is “liberating.”

“I never fathomed being where I am today,” said Simmons, who is attending St. Petersburg College and is the mother of a son, Javarius, 7, and a daughter, Laylonnie, 10.

 “The home is the foundation of everything that happens in my life,” she said. “Since I got that foundation, everything is coming together. It’s peace of mind. It’s a comfort that no one can take from me.”

But homeownership is no easy achievement for minorities in the Tampa Bay area. Regardless of education, Black residents make less than their white counterparts, according to the 2020 Regional Equity Report by Tampa Bay Partnership.

Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities also are much less likely to own their own home compared to white residents. The 32.5 percent homeownership gap between the area’s white and Black residents “not only affects housing stability for these families,” but also “the accumulation of wealth from one generation to the next,” the report said.

It didn’t take a study for Simmons, who is of Black and Mexican heritage, to value home ownership for herself and her children. “Having the Habitat home is really coming out of a poverty situation,” she told me. “Just being able to own my own home is coming out of poverty. We have a lot to be grateful for.”

Affordable housing has never been more important than right now, says Mike Sutton, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties.

“During the height of the shutdown in March and April, a lot of people didn’t have a safe place to quarantine or to shelter in place. We have never seen the need greater,” he said.

Sutton said that 78 percent of the families Habitat works with in Pinellas and West Pasco counties are minorities. In St. Petersburg, specifically, 85 percent of Habitat families are Black or Hispanic. By the end of this year, the agency will have completed 61 homes, the largest number it’s built in a year.

As he looks back on 2020, Sutton is grateful for the financial support his organization has received in spite of the pandemic, enabling it to keep providing affordable housing to families who “wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity.”

Nilda Sanchez heads one of those families. She recently moved with her son, Rodney, 13, into a new Habitat subdivision in Pinellas Park. The University of South Florida graduate, who works for the Florida Department of Health, is excited about now having room to have guests over. And she can’t wait to put up Christmas lights on the exterior of her new home.

It’s a small thing, but yet another reason for thankfulness.

Shadai Simmons with her children, her son, Javarius, 7, and daughter, Laylonnie, 10.

 

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