Imagine you are Tara or Sean Sorensen and that thanks to Habitat for Humanity — after years in a series of cramped apartments — you and your two children have just moved into a home of your own. How do you celebrate?
Here’s what the Sorensens did: The same week in April they moved in to their new Lindsay home they bought a barbecue on sale; the following week they bought Charlie, a black lab pup. Two gestures that say a lot about the kind of freedom and lifestyle that home ownership affords.
Both Tara and Sean are employed as DSWs (Disability Support Workers) at Christian Horizons, a Lindsay group home, so we arrange a weekday meeting when they’re both off.
When I drop in to hear about their Habitat experience and how it’s changed their lives I’m greeted by Tara, two Seans (dad and 18-month-old son), and Charlie the dog, who gently noses me then flops onto a doggy bed in a corner. Throughout my visit Sean Jr. babbles good-naturedly and from time to time offers me his bottle or Charlie’s rubber bone.
What I see when I climb the steps to the main floor of their semi-detached home is a light-filled, pleasant living space.
Through the Sorensens’ eyes it must look very different. When they began working alongside Habitat volunteers a year ago the interior framing had yet to be completed and the basement had a dirt floor. The stairway railing I grasp was sanded and stained by the Sorensens; they helped with the interior framing, the laying of the laminate flooring, the painting (Tara’s least favourite task).
The back deck the new barbecue sits on? Tara remembers being on her hands and knees nailing it together on a January day . . . and that her knees were swollen for three days.
Tara grew up in her family’s home in Prince Edward Island. Sean was born in Ireland, but grew up in the GTA, moving frequently. “Bowmanville, Oshawa, Courtice, Pickering . . . so many places, so many schools,” he tells me.
Their lives intersected in Alberta in 2011. A week after meeting they were engaged. Their honeymoon was driving cross-country before they fetched up here in Lindsay where they settled, moving from renting a room to a tiny one-bedroom apartment, to a larger apartment with uncongenial neighbours, then to another one-bedroom, by which time they were raising their first-born, Jahmes.
They dreamed of moving into their own home, but it seemed beyond their grasp. “Even with both of us working we could never hope to set aside enough money for a down payment, or qualify for a mortgage,” says Sean.
Habitat for Humanity, which works in partnership with the city, offered a path to fulfilling their dream: an affordable house, a down-payment loan from the city (forgivable after 20 years in the home), and a 15-year mortgage geared to income.
Tara and Sean certainly checked a number of boxes for selection: Their housing was overcrowded; they had a stable source of income but didn’t qualify for a conventional mortgage; they were more than willing to contribute the required 500 “sweat equity” hours by helping to construct their own home.
In 2014 they applied but their combined income was $1,000 over the allowable limit. Eligibility is based in part on number of children and last September after their second son was born they applied again. Their application was re-evaluated and quickly approved.
They remember the phone call vividly. Sean’s response: “Seriously?” Tara’s was tears. “It felt surreal,” she says.
They began the “sweat equity” contributions. Much of it was work on the house, but some was volunteer hours at Habitat’s ReStore, and family and friends helping could count, too.
It can’t have been easy. Both had to fit in the work on the house around their jobs and child care. But there was the reward of seeing their own home take shape.
And both came away with new skills. “When I started I didn’t know how to hold a hammer properly,” Tara admits. By the end she’d even learned to use a circular saw. Sean remembers the special attention they gave the railing, sanding every surface and carefully applying a runny stain.
The volunteers who worked with them were impressed by their work ethic. Dan Plancke had this to say, after working with them over a number of months: “They were both keen to help build their home and neither were afraid to do the ‘heavy lifting’ required.”
Plancke was also impressed by their aptitude. “It was apparent early on that both of them were quick to learn how to nail, cut, place, level, and square the various ‘build aspects’ of their home.” Both showed signs of being able to pursue a career in carpentry should life present the opportunity or the need.”
So, how has having their own home changed the Sorensens’ lives? In the past they had to have permission from a landlord to make any changes in their accommodation; now they’re free to decorate and make whatever changes they want. In the past, for fear of angry bangs on the wall from other apartments, Tara had to hold in check an active child. Now Tara can encourage Jahmes to run and play. The last time Tara’s dad visited from P.E.I. he stayed in a motel; the next time he comes they will have room in their home for him.
It has also allowed them to grow their family further. In December Tara is expecting their third child.
For Sean, one of the great pleasures is knowing his children will have stability, the kind of home base their mother had. For Jahmes’s and Sean Jr.’s sibling, this might be home from birth to the moment they leave the nest.