Giving families a foundation, one home at a time

Milka and her daughter, Hanna, stand in front of their new Habitat home.

Milka and her daughter, Hanna, stand in front of their new Habitat home.

Although she works full time, Milka Quintero, a 36-year-old single mother, lived with her brother and daughter in a tight, two-bedroom apartment. Rent was $1,000 excluding utilities. Space was sparse, and having friends over was rare for the teenager who did homework from her bed.

When she applied for a traditional bank mortgage, Quintero qualified for no more than $80,000 – not enough to buy a Sarasota home where real estate prices often outpace wages.

But she did qualify for a Habitat for Humanity Sarasota home.

Habitat Sarasota brings volunteers, sponsors and corporate donors together to make home ownership a reality and to break the cycle of poverty by providing zero-interest mortgages to qualified families.

Families like hers.

Quintero had consistent income, a proven need for space and the willingness to work – a signature of the Habitat mantra where hands-on giving is hands-on receiving.

Rather than programs that focus solely on children in need, the two-generation approach bridges financial gaps by engaging whole families, not just parents.

“When parents are financially strained, their children feel it too. Inadequate living conditions cause many children to struggle in school, which results in a perpetual cycle of poverty,” said Renee Snyder, executive director of Habitat Sarasota.

And although working toward home ownership was no easy feat, Quintero’s daughter, Hanna Varela, 14, thrust her hands in the dirt.

Every Saturday after the work week, her mom carved out four hours to work on the site of her future home. Single-parent family Habitat homeowners are required to volunteer a total of 300 hours toward on-site building – a feat considering Quintero had seldom used a drill as a lifelong renter. And with home economics classes no longer a curriculum mainstay, Hanna skipped evening outings with friends to learn about how to maintain their future home.

Developing good habits

The Habitat Sarasota program requires expectant homeowners to complete homeownership classes that cover budgeting, home maintenance, energy efficiency, cooking and legal counseling on their contract and homeowner’s insurance.

A group of about eight met for the two-hour evening classes over the course of five weeks at First Presbyterian Church.

Many renters have never replaced an air-conditioning filter or maintained a yard, and some rarely prepared home-cooked meals for lack of space or a kitchen altogether.

Some of the classes required on-site learning, like the cooking class held at Publix where both mother and daughter prepared Caesar-style tortellini with pork from scratch.

“Families who eat together thrive together,” Snyder said. “We look at spending habits and see a lot of people had no kitchen and were spending more on drive-throughs where it’s easy to lose money on convenience.”

And they’ve been cooking more than ever since June 30, when they moved into their new three-bedroom, two-bath home.

Hanna, 14, attends the cooking class Habitat homeowners are required to complete. 

Hanna, 14, attends the cooking class Habitat homeowners are required to complete. 

It’s a cheerful blue with palms beneath the front window and a backyard.

The best part is that mortgage is $700 a month, including taxes and insurance. And like all Habitathomes, it’s interest-free.

The worst part is mowing the lawn, Quintero laughed.

Today Hanna almost always has her best friend over and sleepovers are commonplace. She has space to do her homework and keeps her new room tidy. She plans on attending college and dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon so she can help people.

But she and her mother already have a head start on that.

A friend in need is staying in the third bedroom until she can get back on her feet.