Thanks to Thousands of Volunteers, Seasonal Cheer Is More Than a Simple Phrase for this Family. It’s the Beginning of a Better life.

Maria Zapien had nowhere to hide in her tiny, one-bedroom apartment when the kids were fighting, the dog was barking for its nightly fried-chicken dinner, and the future looked like more of the same.

Often, she dreamed of life in a house of her own, with a washer and dryer, an upstairs and a downstairs, a back yard for the dog and a kitchen with plenty of room.

A peaceful place, she says, calm, without problems.

This holiday season, when Maria wakes from the dream, she will live in that house – for real – with her husband, Catarino Zapien, four children and the family dog.

The Zapiens’ new, three-bedroom house was built by Centex Homes as a project for the Dallas Habitat for Humanity in a neighborhood called Garrett Park East.

Habitat for Humanity is a worldwide ministry founded in 1981 and based in Americus, Ga., dedicated to providing affordable housing for all. The agency operates 750 divisions in the U.S. And builds houses in 38 countries.

Literally thousands of volunteers have made the Zapiens’ dream come true by donating time, money and materials to provide the American dream to others in our community.

Today, the Dallas Habitat and its staff regularly receive well-deserved praise for their efforts to provide housing. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The Dallas Habitat made little impact until 1989, when a group of real estate developers offered a large donation of property in Garrett Park East, at the time a 16-block community of mostly shabby houses and apartment buildings bordered by Munger Boulevard-Greenville Avenue, Bryan Parkway, and Live Oak and Ross avenues.

Since then, Habitat has built more than 40 houses and rehabilitated 81 as part of its three-year master plan.

While most of the neat, one-story houses with clean, pale siding are built from the same blueprint, they’re notable for their long, inviting front porches, where families sit on weekends and watch children and dogs play nearby.

Today, Garrett Park East is a young community with promise.

“Most of our families come out of one-bedroom apartments,” says Wink Dickey, executive director for Dallas Habitat. He walks through the two-story Zapien house, almost complete except for some paint, linoleum, sod and a fence for the yard.

“For six people coming out of 500 square feet of living space, this will be a palace.”

It’s much bigger than the house Maria Zapien designed on paper for her own amusement when she still lived in the city of Guanajuato in central Mexico. Her husband traveled to Miami in 1980 to pick fruits and vegetables, and Maria supported the family by working as a nurse.

Maria could dream about a new house, but better education for her children was more important. The Zapiens knew they couldn’t afford to send their children to private schools that are preferable for those with academic ambitions in Mexico, so they began looking for something better.

Catarino Zapien moved to Dallas in 1982 and found steady employment as a maintenance worker with Pace Realty. Two years later, he brought the family here.

They could afford only a small apartment, with the parents sleeping on a cot in the living room, their son on the couch, and three daughters sharing the only bedroom.

When the landlord wouldn’t make repairs, Catarino would do the work himself.

“They wanted everything for their children,” says Patsy Robles, a bilingual consultant for the Texas Education Service who visited the Zapiens as part of Habitat’s Family Review Committee, which helps determine eligibility for the housing program.

“They made sacrifices for their education. But the girls were of age, and teenagers want their privacy. The dog (Salma, who has one brown eye and will eat only fried chicken for dinner) lived on the patio and had no room to run around.

“They were striving to get a house that would accommodate them.”

Today, daughter Sandra, 18, is studying chemistry at Richland College and wants to be a chemical engineer. Laura, 16, is a sophomore at North Dallas High School.

Ten-year-old Maria, a fifth-grader at Reinhardt Elementary, is taking up the violin, and nine-year-old George, in fourth grade at Reinhardt, is a serious violin student and practices until bedtime.

Four kids in a cramped apartment…Laura says when the younger children argued, she simply picked up her books and studied outside.

Now, Laura says her brother and sister can fight all they want in the house. “I just study in my room and close the door.”

In a sense, the family is breaking with its culture by promoting education for the children.

“Most Hispanic parents say they want the best for their children, but when the children are old enough to work, they must work to help the family,” Robles says.

Expecting her to follow the same route as her classmates, Sandra’s high school counselor at North Dallas pushed her toward a vocational education, but Sandra’s mother insisted on college preparatory classes for her daughter. Neither parent attended school past eighth grade.

“My mother wants us to keep studying, to have a better opportunity that my parents didn’t have,” Laura says.

“My father is sure all of us will go to school. He says we have the spirit to study.”

The older daughters hold part-time jobs selling snacks at Love Field, but they perform even more important work in their new community.

Like other Habitat families, the Zapiens invested 400 hours of “sweat equity” to help qualify for the housing program; they have assisted in the construction of their own and their neighbors’ houses.

Prospective and current Garrett Park East neighborhood homeowners have joined volunteers from throughout Dallas, and corporate patrons such as Centex (parent company of Fox & Jacobs) and David Weekley Homes, to complete most of the work.

Habitat’s six-person staff live and work in the neighborhood, acting mostly in a supervisory and fund-raising role.

On this weekend, for example, a high school service group is helping to paint a house two blocks away on Hudson Street. A church group works on a renovation project on the corner. On Lindell Street, the junior League of Dallas is finishing another new house.

The Zapiens worked on five houses, hammering nails and installing insulation along with their new neighbors. All qualified for the Habitat program by demonstrating a history of work and payment of rent and federal income taxes, and a stable family environment.

The houses cost an average $42,000 each to build, and the homes carry 25-year, no interest first mortgages for that amount. As an incentive, Habitat adds a second $8,000 mortgage, and forgives one-tenth of that mortgage each year, as long as the family keeps the house.

Habitat insists on no-frills accessories for its houses to discourage competition among the families, but the group stresses practical features such as insulation and weatherproof windows to minimize utility bills.

Dickey obtained a grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank to buy energy saving ground-water source heat pumps for 20 new homes.

Dickey says Habitat for Humanity will build 16,000 houses this year in the U.S., ranking it 27th among home builders nationwide. (Dallas-based Centex is first.) Last year, Habitat was the 63rd largest home builder.

“At this rate,” Dickey says, seriously, “one day, we’ll take over from Centex.”

Habitat attracts attention with events such as the “blitz building” project former president Jimmy Carter led this summer in Washington, D.C., that produced 14 houses in one week. In October, Dallas Habitat built five houses on Live Oak in one week.

But these houses aren’t just slapped up: They’re known for sturdiness, too. When Hurricane Andrew passed through Homestead, Fla., a few months ago, the only building left standing in one neighborhood were the Habitat houses.

“After that, my building inspectors for the first time were fairly friendly,” Dickey says. “They finally have accepted us as being builders.

“Originally, they looked at us as a bunch of do-gooders who were trying to build houses. I’ve been a general contractor for 18 years. I know how to build houses.”

Dickey arrived from Memphis in 1989 to stimulate a local Habitat program that had completed just two projects in four years.

“Now, I can walk around the neighborhood and show you what we’ve done as opposed to showing you one project in South Dallas and then another in West Dallas. We’re very focused, and that helps the overall effort,” he says.

Other start-up groups are working in South and West Dallas, which need lots of help.

“But we find nobody is assessing the needs in East Dallas,” Dickey says.

And despite the efforts of outgoing federal Housing and Urban Development director Jack Kemp, who toured Garrett Park East in late March, “affordable housing is not an issue of any son in this city. Housing is not perceived as a basic human right, although it should be,” Dickey says.

Kemp’s visit, with Dallas City Manager Jan Hart along for the ride, helped win a $300,000 Community Development Block Grant to repair streets and sidewalks in Garrett Park East.

Dallas Habitat will soon finish its work in Garret Park East, and its staff is investigating new neighborhoods – one further west on Ross and another on Munger, south of Interstate 30. A HUD grant of $55,000 will pay for the neighborhood plan.

“We’re looking for an area with enough buildable property to carry us for three to four years,” Dickey says.

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