Habitat for Humanity’s Newburgh Chapter Builds Homes for Local Families in Need
The salvagers: Habitat for Humanity is revitalizing Newburgh, one home at a time
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The Cordera-Valencia family are shown standing in front of their new front door
Jeanine Jennings, 35, a slight woman with fine features and a gentle smile, has never known stability. She grew up in Harlem and has bounced around since. She’s never owned a home, nor have her parents — or theirs. Jennings was turned down for a mortgage several times because of the student loans she racked up pursuing a degree in fashion management and marketing. She’s 20 hours away from completing her sweat equity. Soon, she and her son Jahmere will move into their own three-bedroom house, by far the biggest place she’ll have ever lived in. Jahmere, who sports a magnificent mane of braided hair, is 14, shy, and hopes to one day become a car mechanic. That seems a long way off in the cheap motel they’re living in now, having fled an apartment with mold and a dripping ceiling. A part-time barber and stylist at the West Point Military Academy, Jennings feels she’ll have done her job if she can provide a safe haven for Jahmere. “I’ll know I’ve done everything I could as a single parent to make sure he was taken care of,” she says.
It’s a searing Saturday morning when 70 people who have traveled from as far away as Connecticut split into teams to work on six different houses scattered around town. Mike Brooks is driving long screws into a deck he’s putting together. He’s a contractor from neighboring Wallkill and got involved with Habitat through his church. During the week, he works for Builtwell Construction, his family’s business. On Saturday he comes here to do the same work for free. “It’s a lot more appreciation,” he says. “A lot more sincerity.” He’s already put in 70-odd hours on this house. When he’s done, he says, “it’s just on to the next.”
With nearly all labor and materials donated by the 70 builders involved, the houses were finished on time and at minimal cost to Habitat. Above, builders work on the homes on June 7. Below, the nearly finished building, just one day later
It’s that urgency that makes Habitat so successful in Newburgh, triggered by a powerful sense of community building. “A lot of people remember what this city was,” says Collins, “and they want it to go back to being that place.”
“You need no skills or prior knowledge,” adds Deirdre Glenn, the organization’s former executive director. “There’s this incredible sense that you can make a difference with your own hands.” Volunteers can help out every Wednesday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and are welcomed individually or in groups of five or more. There is no commitment to put in more than one day’s work, but those who wish to do so must sign up either online or by calling ahead each time they volunteer.
Cornelia Gallagher is the house captain of a Women Build, one of the houses on which at least four-fifths of the labor was done by women. She was a stay-at-home mother and spent subsequent years babysitting her 18 grandchildren. Then they all went to school. “I had to reinvent myself. I didn’t want to play golf and I didn’t want to play tennis and I didn’t want to play bridge,” she says. “I just wanted to do something helpful.” Gallagher, just shy of 76, bought her husband a truck so he could help out too; during her 10 years of involvement, she has learned how to frame a wall, insulate it, and lay floors, too. The brick townhouse her team has rehabbed is a marvel, a piece of scrap wood polished back up to a high shine — reinvented.
When Cerrone Washington moves in with his father and fiancée, it will be the 10th house Habitat has brought back to life on East Parmenter Street. Other houses will soon be rehabbed and vacant spaces filled up with new construction to bring the tally to 24. Habitat hopes the holdout houses on Parmenter will eventually be swept up in the rush of renewal. Then the rest of the neighborhood. Then — maybe — even the entire city.