The fog lifted just before 8 a.m. in Wilmington on Jan. 21, in time for Alicia Zenon and daughters Shaniah and Destiny Morris to wield golden shovels, breaking ground in a ceremony at a lot on Colwell Avenue.
Behind them, laid out with two-by-fours and taught string, was the footprint of their new home, and a foundation for a new life.
After the prayers, well-wishes and hugs, about 30 volunteers with Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity got to work, breaking some serious ground now under the direction of Eric Clemmer, construction site supervisor. The crew, wielding sturdier shovels, quickly dug about two feet, following the lines of string. Soon, a foundation will be laid into this trench. Walls will go up and a tiny slice of the American dream will become a three-dimensional reality for Alicia, Shaniah and Destiny.
This marks the second of three homes that Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity is building as part of the State Employees Credit Union Foundation’s “Mountains to the Sea” challenge. The first was completed late last year in Beulaville, a joint project with Duplin County Habitat. For the third SECU home, ground will be broken in late February in Pender County.
The Mountains-to-the Sea Challenge is an ambitious program, fueled with $10 million from the SECU Foundation, to build a Habitat home in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Once each home is completed, the new homeowner assumes a zero-percent mortgage with SECU, and the mortgage funds are returned to the Habitat affiliate, in the form of a grant, so that another home can be built.
Alicia Zenon can finally see the end of a long journey. Her work at a local auto dealer, keeping track of warranties and other paperwork, means long hours at low pay. The first time she applied to Habitat, she didn’t qualify because of credit card debt. After she got her debt under control, she was approved and began accumulating “sweat equity” hours working on other people’s homes.
She admits that at times she wondered if it was all worth it. But she and her daughters were beaming on that Saturday morning, and the number of friends and family that turned out to cheer her on lifted her spirits.
One of those cheerleaders was her aunt, Barbara Elliot, who herself built a Habitat home in Charlotte in 1997. She lived there until 2008, when she moved to the N.C. coast.
Her advice to young families is simple.
“Don’t get discouraged, and don’t fall for credit card offers. You will drown. Owning a home is work, but if you take care of it you’ll have no problems.
“Habitat is a great program,” she said. “Especially when you send in that last payment. Habitat makes the payment lower, so it’s affordable.”
As for her niece, Alicia hopes to be in her new home in late April. And she and her daughters will often be at the site on Colwell Avenue, putting in that sweat equity, on their own home this time, to make sure that great day happens.
“100 Black Men” lends a hand
Five of the people who helped dig out a place for Alicia Zenon’s new home were members of the Wilmington branch of 100 Black Men, one of four affiliates in North Carolina and 116 around the country which offers mentoring and opportunities to broaden horizons for young black people.
“We host sessions to talk about current issues and deal with life skills,” explains Jerry L. Jackson, a mentor who accompanied the group to Colwell Avenue and helped with the shovel work. “We get them to think about life beyond high school.”
The organization was founded in 1963 in New York City by African American men who wanted to explore ways of improving conditions in their community. The group included David Dinkins, mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993, and baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Since then, the vision has grown to be shared by more than 10,000 members reaching some 125,000 underserved, under-represented minority youth each year. The motto “What They See Is What They’ll Be” guides each chapter in providing disadvantaged, disenfranchised and low-income youth and families with positive role models and a look at new, life-changing horizons.
“We mentor about 15 needy students at each site,” says Dr. James Graham, a retired cancer and gynecological surgeon who left Chicago when he and his wife retired to Southport.
“We meet weekly for one hour. We discuss health, leadership and well-being. We’ve been doing to this four years. We also have a group of high school students we meet with once a month on Saturdays, called Saturday Academy. We bring in people to discuss various professions.
“We help them create a portfolio. When they get ready to apply to college can say they were involved with the community.”
One of the three young mentees at the build site that day was Quamek James, a Wilmington native who, at the age of 17, speaks with remarkable self-assurance and maturity.
He reels off the benefits of joining 100 Black Men: “I learn life skills, gain experience in public speaking and engage in enlightening conversations.
“We discuss current events, social issues, personal health and wellness. How to grow up and be successful adults.”
The group has taken him to Florida, Atlanta and Kentucky, where he has met military leaders and actors.
“I had never traveled outside of North Carolina,” James says. But broadening his horizons has helped him see how professionals handle their lives.
“It’s been a great experience. It’s helped me to mature and grow a little.”
Now he’s a student at Isaac Bear Early College High School, which is attached to UNC-Wilmington. He’s looking into a career in law enforcement and, perhaps, politics.
Joining 100 Black Men has also given him an appreciation for his mother’s sacrifices for him.
“I’m very fortunate to have her,” James says. “She takes care of an elderly man. She works very hard, and she helps me out a lot.”
She’s also, as mothers tend to be, a “big supporter” of her son.
“She will get up a make a speech at any time. It can be a little embarrassing.”
But when pressed, James admits that his mother’s cheerleading is a real influence on his life.
“Mom’s very proud of me.”