DREAM HOMES: New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity celebrates 30 years

Larry Cooper is not a celebrity.

And yet, on a warm spring afternoon, almost 200 people were clamoring to get a photo with him. They were cheering his name and lining the sidewalk just to get a chance to walk through his house, shake his hand and tell him how excited they were to meet him.

And Cooper was on top of the world, because, thanks to the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and volunteers like the hundreds gathered before him, he was one of the city’s newest home owners.

A cook for the past 35 years at Antoine’s restaurant, Cooper, the father of six grown daughters and two grown sons, survived the loss of first his wife and then the destruction of his worldly possessions by Hurricane Katrina, to see his dream come true.

His is one of the more than 700 homes that New Orleans Habitat has built for low-income New Orleans families over the past 30 years.

“Thirty years ago, when we joined Habitat for Humanity, it was a little-known, small grassroots organization out of Georgia,” Habitat Executive Director Jim Pate said. “In the early years, we basically did rehab work. It was slow going.”

By NOAHH’s 21st year, the organization had built or rehabilitated 101 houses.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit.

“Habitat for Humanity built the first new house in the city post-Katrina,” Pate said. “At a time where people could barely find a pen and paper, we were organizing 800 to 1,000 volunteers a day to rebuild this city.”

In the eight years following, NOAHH has recruited and deployed more than 120,000 volunteers from around the world to build more than 400 homes. Within that time, NOAHH also created what Pate calls the organization’s signature project — Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward.

Conceived by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, Musicians’ Village includes 72 single-family homes, five elder-friendly duplexes, a toddler-friendly pocket park and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

“It gave us a real focus and was one of the most encouraging things to happen after Katrina,” Pate said.

Musicians’ Village also brought much-needed media attention to the city’s rebuilding efforts, helped in part by visits from then-Sen. Barack Obama, former President Jimmy Carter, the Dave Matthews Band and the crown prince of Norway.

“The tour buses were just coming non-stop,” Pate said.

Looking ahead to the next 30 years, Pate said NOAHH hopes to continue to build 35 to 40 homes per year while expanding other programs, including A Brush With Kindness, which helps elderly and physically challenged homeowners make necessary home repairs, exploring a partnership with the St. Bernard Project to use veterans trained in electrical and plumbing to work on future homes, and possibly opening additional branches of its ReStore, a discount home improvement store that sells donated new or used building materials and furniture.

Cooper is familiar with ReStore, where he spent many of his 350 hours of “sweat equity” NOAHH requires of every home buyer.

Working at ReStore, and on both his own house and his neighbor’s, Cooper has well surpassed the required hours of service, but he said he has no intention of quitting now that he has his home.

“I’m going to keep showing up,” he said. “They helped me; now I’m going to help someone else.”

The New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity will celebrate its 30th anniversary from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Palmer Park, South Carrollton and South Claiborne avenues.

Attendees will enjoy performances by the 610 Stompers and Big Sam’s Funky Nation, refreshments from various local food trucks, and the chance to participate, or just watch, teams of four compete in various backyard games like tug-of-war, relay races and water balloon shot putting.

For more information, including how to register a team, visit http://www.habitat-romp.org.

To learn more about volunteering and home ownership through NOAHH, visit http://www.habitat-nola.org.