Habitat for Humanity provides Superior family a home for the holidaysOn Christmas morning in Superior, the Christianson kids got coloring books and crayons, some building blocks, snacks and “really cool” Transformer-style toothbrushes.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
On Christmas morning, the Christianson kids got coloring books and crayons, some building blocks, snacks and “really cool” Transformer-style toothbrushes.
But the joy of the morning wasn’t about the presents. It was about where they were opened.
After a year of heartache and wrenching financial wrangling, the Christiansons have a place to call home in 2013. While the home isn’t exactly finished, the family of six — Jarrad and Heather and children Andrew, 7; Alex, 5; Austin, 3; and Lacey, nearly 1 –— opened the door to their Habitat For Humanity house Tuesday morning in Superior and found a tree decorated by volunteers.
“When we woke up this morning, it was a little depressing,” Heather said. “But as soon as we got to the house that just disappeared.”
The sorrow comes from the knowledge that the family is one member short. Lacey’s twin, Lillian, died in July from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The two girls were born 13 weeks early in January, weighing just 2 pounds each. After months of touch-and-go care, the girls were home and doing “excellent” by the time summer came around, Heather said.
Lillian died on the day her parents planned to look at another house to move their now large family into.
“Everything just kind of stopped,” Heather said.
They mourned while continuing to live in a cramped and moldy two-bedroom duplex.
The Christiansons had been looking for a new home since last holiday season with Heather pregnant with the twins.
Jarrad works on the docks at Lake Superior Warehouse, which sometimes means getting laid off with the whims of the shipping season. His up-and-down income wasn’t a selling point for a loan, Heather said.
The other problem was that in order to get a bank loan, the houses they would have to take had to be in perfect condition, and thus cost more, Heather said. The homes in their price range just weren’t suitable, she said. The thought of building one crossed their minds, but it was too late.
As January and the girls came around, Heather, 24, and Jarrad, 27, put the new home idea on hold. Jarred had to take a lot of time off to care for the girls as they spent time in intensive care units. Lacey also is a heart surgery survivor.
Eventually, into the fall, a friend suggested Heather look into Habitat For Humanity.
The friend’s mother had been helped by the volunteer group that builds and fixes up homes in a mission to get people out of substandard housing.
“I said ‘What the heck,’ I’ll give it a shot,” Heather said.
The Christianson’s knew nothing about Habitat and its programs. They looked on the website and found that the Western Lake Superior chapter, based out of the Twin Ports, had some homes it was planning on moving from the site for a new Super One Foods grocery store on the east side of Superior. Miners Inc. had purchased several homes to clear the way for a store and donated two of them to habitat.
But there was a problem. The home the Christiansons saw as a possibility was only a two-bedroom.
Daryl Yankee, the executive director of the Habitat chapter, said the gutting of the home it moved to Ogden Avenue last December was its big project of the year.
Habitat has done about a dozen projects each year but wants to do more total home projects. It did about six smaller projects this year, which included tasks such as putting in new windows, painting or building a ramp.
The Ogden project took a lot of planning and a lot of help from expert contractors, Yankee said.
“It’s part science and part sculpture,” he said.
The interior of the home was completely gutted to the studs. The floor plan was altered for a more open feel.
Workers found newspapers from the 1950s in the walls. It was inspiration to use the best in modern insulation, Yankee said.
The general contractor is Ryan Ostrofsky of Rymel Construction. He said he’s been wanting to do volunteer work for a few years and was glad to stumble upon the Ogden project.
It’s been an experience Ostrofsky won’t soon forget, he said last week while rushing to get the home in good enough shape to allow the Christiansons in for the quick present opening.
“This is the only construction job I’ve done where you don’t know where the materials are coming from or who your crew is,” he said with a laugh.
Habitat is an all-volunteer force and depends on many donations for its materials.
Susan Jonas, a volunteer coordinator for Habitat, said response to a call for a big push in help at the home last week was answered with an “outpouring of supports.”
On Dec. 19, several people were in the home doing work with more scheduled into January.
Ostrofsky was looking for tapers last week after a crew roared through and put up most of the rest of the wallboards.
He said he’s enjoying coordinating people in the trades. He’s also using all of his own personal resources, including his 12 years with the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth.
The Bulldogs, with years of worrying whether or not the unit would be kept in Duluth behind it, is now in a mood to give back to the Twin Ports, Ostrofsky said. One way is to help Habitat with the Superior house. A crew was out last weekend for roof work.
“You’re going to see a lot more of this,” he said of the 148th.
Group help is a big part of projects, Yankee said. People come from colleges, churches and other organizations. Building professionals also are key, he said.
Because you never know what might come up.
The home had to be off the site of the new grocery store, so it sat on blocks for months at the location on Ogden. In June, the basement was dug.
“Two days before the flood,” Yankee said in a deadpan voice.
Habitat pumped 40,000 gallons of water out of the hole, an “ouch” extra cost of $5,000. By August, the home was slid onto the foundation and the big push to get it finished by the end of the year was on.
The Christianson’s plight has been fairly public news in Superior. When the couple went looking for a new car to safely haul their kids around, a dealer heard of their recent loss and donated a vehicle. Others in the community have surrounded the family with kindness, Heather said.
But no one was going to buy them a house.
Heather went to an informational meeting to introduce herself to the process and Habitat. Other people were there, and she was still feeling like it was a whim.
“If it works, it works,” she said of her thoughts at the time. “If not, nothing changes.”
The couple was then called in to meet the entire Habitat board.
By October, the family found out that they’d been accepted to be the recipients of the home in progress. As a bonus, it was decided that an extra bedroom would go into the basement to provide more room for the family.
“Oh my gosh, we were overwhelmed,” Heather said.
Finally, there was acceptance.
Getting a Habitat home isn’t charity. The Christiansons are responsible for up to $90,000 in a no-interest loan depending on the costs associated with the home remodel that aren’t donated or volunteer. Their payments will be based on their income, a flexibility the couple had been scrapping to get the past year.
They also have to put in 300 hours of “sweat equity” working on the home alongside volunteers. As of last week, the couple had 100 hours to go. They plan on doing much of the painting now that the bare walls are smooth and ready to go.
Habitat’s Yankee said Jarrad sometimes comes off a long shift on the docks to come to work, no matter how menial the job.
“If it’s a nasty job, he’s doing it,” Yankee said. “He’ll certainly know every corner of this house.”
The boys already have picked out their rooms.
“They want to drive by and see the guys working on the house,” Heather said of their excitement.
The thought of the larger space was one the mother slowly saw come into focus as each wall was formed last week.
“It’s so hard to do anything,” she said of the duplex. “It’s hard to move. It just feels so cluttered, so compact. I’m relieved by leaving my house.”
The Habitat crew cleaned up the construction site as best it could over the weekend. It added the tree and some presents. It was a personal touch the Christiansons have felt all along in the process, Heather said.
If things go right, the family will move in by the end of January.
It could be in time for Lacey’s birthday party and a tradition of honoring her lost sister, Heather said.
“It’s a new start,” she said. “It’s new everything.”