Habitat builds home with help from Saints

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Volunteers, including members of the New Orleans Saints, took part in a wall raising Thursday at the construction site of a Habitat for Humanity house under construction in Central City for Gloria Smith.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Volunteers, including members of the New Orleans Saints, took part in a wall raising Thursday at the construction site of a Habitat for Humanity house under construction in Central City for Gloria Smith.

Four New Orleans Saints players joined Gloria Smith on Thursday morning to raise the front wall on her new Central City home, also adding their autographs to the framework.

In addition to the labor power of volunteers, the house is being provided to Smith at a low cost through Habitat for Humanity and a partnership with M&M’s.

Smith, who lost everything when her Hollygrove home flooded with 4 feet of water after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures, will move into the house upon completion in May.

Alongside about 30 volunteers from across the country, Saints players Mike Higgins, Andy Tanner, Curtis Lofton and Brian de la Puente helped to nail boards and construct the frame of the three-bedroom home on South Rocheblave Street.

“Hurry up and get through so I can get in,” Smith joked to the crowd assembled in front of the raised cement foundation. “My heart is so full, but I’m not going to cry,” she said.

Together with her daughter Quana Smith, Gloria Smith will contribute 350 “sweat equity” hours as well as a $600 per month payment, which covers the principal payment, insurance, taxes and termite control.

After spending a few months in Houston with a brother following Katrina, the two have been renting a place in Metairie and said they are very eager to get into a house of their own.

“It’s all about Gloria,” said Lofton, who had one arm in a sling but was doing what he could one-handed and providing celebrity support.

The “magic of Habitat,” according to New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity executive director Jim Tate, is that Habitat and their volunteers help Smith work and pay for her new house without making any profit or charging interest. Smith’s payments only go toward covering the costs, as well as helping others become homeowners.

With Smith’s house, M&M’s is launching an “M’Prove America” campaign in partnership with Habitat.

Many of the volunteers on hand Thursday were part of RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans), an outreach program of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church started in October of 2005 to “provide meaningful service opportunities in New Orleans for out-of-state volunteers.” Since it’s inception, RHINO has welcomed more than 5,500 volunteers and built 28 homes through Habitat for Humanity.

Rod and Patsy McLean came for the week from Madison, Wis., to pitch in. It was Rod McLean’s third time volunteering through RHINO, and Patsy McLean’s first visit to the city.

Other than getting out of temperatures with a high of 7 degrees and a wind chill of negative 20 degrees, the couple said they enjoy lending a hand and knowing at the end of the week that they contributed to rebuilding the community.

“It’s about being part of something bigger than yourself,” Patsy McLean said. You can’t build a house in a week, Rod McLean said, but working “in concert with others doing the same goal, you can make a difference.”

Rod McLean also praised Habitat as a “well-oiled machine.” Volunteers don’t ever feel the are “spinning their wheels,” he said, but rather that “every stroke of the hammer is well placed.”

The McLeans also said they are enjoying the food, music, and culture of the city, though after days of hard work house building, they’ve been turning in early each night.

Since Katrina, Habitat for Humanity has built 450 houses in the New Orleans area. Pate thanked everyone involved and called his staff the “greatest staff in the country.”

Quana Smith said she and her mother have been working in Habitat’s office, store and working on other people’s houses to fulfill their required hours. She said it was a great opportunity to learn new skills, and she now knows how to install windows. She also enjoys meeting volunteers from all walks of life, she said, and expressed deep appreciation that at her mother’s house, “They could be anywhere, but they chose to be here with us.”

McKenzie de la Puente and other Saints wives volunteer regularly with Habitat, the Saints player said, and he finds New Orleans to a community that inspires service. “You want to get involved, you want to help,” de la Puente said. “The community is so supportive of us, the least we can do is get out and help the community.”

Lofton and de la Puente, both of whom have been involved in other community service events throughout the week, said they won’t be going to the big game on Sunday. They said that when they are in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a Super Bowl, they’ll be on the field.