José and Zenaida Vega understand their new, four-bedroom, 1.5 bath, home in Kenosha is not a handout from Habitat for Humanity, but a hand up.
The couple, parents of three children, Angela, 13, Luis, 15 and Maria, 19, were selected by the Kenosha Chapter of the organization as the first recipients of a home in Kenosha.
Members of their parish, St. Mark the Evangelist, were so excited for them that they threw the family a housewarming shower earlier this year, which about 900 guests attended.
“We are so excited and it still really hasn’t hit us yet, that we have a new home,” said José, 38, who works for First Student Bus Company. “The shower was a nice surprise that they did for us. You know, you get involved in your parish and you do it because you want to, not to get something out of it. But it was nice that they recognized us.”
The shower was a means of expressing thanks to the family who has cheerfully and tirelessly volunteered in the parish for the past 17 years. According to pastoral associate Karen Metallo, the family is deeply loved by the parish community.
“They have put in countless hours doing amazing jobs for the church, and when we heard that they were recipients, we decided that if the wider community recognized them as great people, then we needed to do something here because they are great people,” she said.
Karen Cox, part of the committee that planned the housewarming, said José has served on the parish council for three years, both have served in the Emmaus men’s and women’s retreats for the past 10 years and both serve as catechists and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.
“They also help with seasonal decorating in the church, and Zenaida coordinates all of the Spanish creative art forms of ongoing plays, such as the annual Passion Play,” she said. “And the kids are just as involved in the parish as their parents. They are a remarkable family and their kids are happy to be with their parents more than with anyone else. I like them so much that I always wished they were part of my family.”
In addition to visiting with parishioners, the shower committee created a poster of a home, and attached paper bricks to the poster, each written with a “wish” that the family had for their home, such as pots and pans, a toaster, towels, etc. The poster was hung in the church and members were invited to take a brick and bring the gift to the shower.
“We had so many people come after the noon Mass and many dropped off gifts if they weren’t able to attend the shower,” said Cox, adding, “they got a lot of gifts and the family was just so excited, happy and grateful.”
This is the couple’s second home. A few years ago, Zenaida’s brother was in a serious auto accident that left him paralyzed and in a vegetative state. She quit her job to care for her brother, moving him into the home she owned with José.
With just one income, they were unable to keep their home, so the family rented a mobile home in Pleasant Prairie. Zenaida’s brother has since returned to Mexico to be cared for by their mother.
Despite their hardships, the family continued their volunteer work with the parish, something that amazes Cox.
“I don’t know if I could have done that,” she said. “When you go through something so devastating you are often focused on recovering and feel hopeless, but to continue giving of your time as they did is unreal.”
With approximately 75 volunteers and much of the materials, labor, plumbing and land donated, the $160,000 home cost approximately $80,000 to build.
To qualify, the Vega family’s income had to fall within Habitat for Humanity’s guidelines, and they were required to attend workshops on home financing, maintenance, yard upkeep and financial literacy.
The family was also required to contribute 400 hours of “sweat equity” in preparing the home for occupancy. The hours are divided evenly between the family and friends or relatives that they recruit to help. Working on the home offers recipients a sense of pride in what they have helped to build, as well as to reduce the construction costs.
“We educated them on home ownership, warrantees, appliances, how to be neighborly and give back to the community,” explained Edward Hauser, head of Habitat for Humanity’s Family Partnership. “We basically hold their hands and walk with them 100 percent of the way and they have to be willing to walk with us.”
According to Hauser, one of the committee members volunteered hundreds of hours to help the Vega family realize their dream of home ownership, and a mortgage banker gave them insights on mortgages and made sure they were mortgage worthy.
“When we first met them, we referred to them as ‘the family,’” said Hauser. “They did good and put their heart and soul into it, learned their core value and faith value and we all became friends. José had a smile on his face and said that we are all invited over anytime.”
Hauser explained that the six-month ecumenical building project had a deep spiritual component in it, which encompassed the volunteers, the officials and the Vega family.
“When Fr. Carlos Florez, pastor of St. Mark Parish, blessed the house in prayer at the ribbon cutting, the comment was made that the family had good faith values, but for anyone taking a tour of the home, they would see a picture on the shelf of Our Lady of Guadalupe and another one in the master bedroom,” said Hauser. “They don’t just say they are Christian. They practice it and live it.”
Becoming a homeowner again was not something José ever thought would happen and he admitted he was surprised when they were picked to have the first home in Kenosha.
“Habitat for Humanity is a great organization and a great opportunity to give a family a chance to own their own,” he said. “The whole community supported us, and that is what made everything easier. When you deal with things by yourself it is hard, but with people around you it gets a little easier.”
While José and Zenaida were excited to move into their own space, the children had their own rooms for the first time.
“The kids had to share a bedroom before, and our older daughter joked that now our younger daughter might miss her and come and sleep in her room,” he said. “You know, it is hard to put into words what this has meant to us. My faith was strong, but now, well, it is nice when people you don’t even know give you a hand. It’s hard to find people like that, but we had great people coming in and out of our house, painting and doing dry wall and all the details. It was great.”