Julia Finley (center) places the first exterior board of her home into place with the help of house captain Peter Salemme (right) and other Millard Fuller Legacy Build volunteers on Monday in Opelika, Alabama.
Legacy Build homeowner partners grateful for hand-up and new friends
OPELIKA, Alabama — When families are selected as Fuller Center for Housing homeowner partners, the key word is partner. They are not charity cases. They simply need and deserve a hand-up into a simple, decent home.
As partners, they contribute sweat equity as they work alongside volunteers, and they then repay the costs of the home with zero-percent-interest, no-profit-made mortgages that stay in the local community to help families like theirs get the same kind of hand-up.
Working with families also enhances the experience of Fuller Center volunteers, who give freely of their personal time to put their faith into action by uplifting and empowering people they often have never met before the first day of a build.
“What’s especially great is being able to work with the homeowners and getting to know them during the week,” said Jim Tomascak, one of the house captains at this year’s Millard Fuller Legacy Build, a position the veteran volunteer has accepted many times before. “There are times when we’ve built when they hadn’t selected families yet, but it’s not the same. It’s still a good feeling, but it’s so much more so when you actually have a chance to meet and work with the family.”
The three homeowner partners for this year’s Legacy Build are on the job sites this week, along with many family members and friends.
Julia Finley bought a house several years ago, but the bottom floor of the home collapsed during a storm last November, briefly trapping her inside with her brother, daughter, son and two grandchildren. The insurance company said the damage was caused by flooding — which Finley disputes — and would not cover the damages.
She worked 47 years with East Alabama Health before retiring as a unit associate in the psychiatric unit in July of 2022, and the Opelika-based hospital helped her secure a hotel room as temporary shelter. Then, Opelika’s Southside Church of Christ allowed the family to live in a property the church owned.
Now, her new Fuller Center home is taking shape on Jeter Avenue, adjacent to three homes on Dover Street that The Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project built during its 2019 tornado recovery efforts.
“I’ve known them before this,” Finley said of her soon-to-be new neighbors.
This week, though, has been about her new friends — the volunteers who came from across the nation to help complete this project … with a little help from some old friends at East Alabama Health.
“People must think I’m famous the way all these people are coming to help me,” said Finley, who will share this home with her brother and son. “It’s a miracle. It’s going so fast that I’m kind of stressed out from all the joy.”
She should be able to handle the stressful joy now that she’s retired. Well, never mind. She’s back at work now.
“I’d been there so long, and I missed it,” she said I love my psych patients. I love them. And I love the staff that I work with, too.”
Cassandra Moss knows a very different kind of loss. She moved in with her parents to help take care of her father after he became seriously ill. He died on December 31, 2022.
In the midst of her grief and trying to restart a life with her two children — Asia, 20, and Alijah, 17 — she saw a Fuller Center home application and figured that the worst thing that could happen was that she was not accepted into the program. But she was, and she has eagerly seized the hand-up.
“It’s been fun and exciting,” Moss said of the work. “We’re learning so much. It’s so much that it’s overwhelming at the same time. We’re living it and we’re doing it, but we haven’t even processed it all yet.”
She and Alijah both spoke of how providing sweat equity enhances the sense of ownership in their soon-to-be completed home. They also are excited to pay it forward knowing that their mortgage payments will uplift another family.
“It makes you appreciate it so much more when you work for it — and knowing that so many people have come to help,” she said. “You don’t see this every day, and it’s great knowing that we can help somebody that’s in our same situation. We never thought we’d been in a position to have something of our own, so it means a lot to us.”
This build week honors Millard Fuller, the man who launched the world’s affordable housing movement with his wife Linda as an expression of their faith and their love for all of God’s people. They laid the foundation for others, including the dozens of volunteers in town this week, to put faith into action through the construction of simple, decent places to live — the foundation stone for healthy families.
““We are putting in a lot of work this week, but I’m excited about it,” said homeowner partner Antoinette Swanson, who will be paying less to own this home than she does to rent her current apartment in nearby Auburn. “I’m just happy to see all the work and appreciate all the work everybody’s been doing.”
The one legacy, though, that is most important to Swanson is the one this home will be for her two sons, ages 7 and 14.
“It means a lot to me to work hard for it and leave a legacy for my kids,” she said. “I just hope one day they’ll look back and see that I worked really hard for them. I’ll be able to leave something for them, and that’s what it’s all about for me.”