Dedicated to a Better Future
On an unseasonably stifling, mid-spring afternoon, it’s difficult for anyone to keep themselves from daydreaming of summer. Kristen Branch keeps hard at work, however, not allowing the haze to blur her focus. She steps into the sunshine to help a customer lift a sofa and load it in the back of a pickup truck waiting outside the front door of the Habitat ReStore.
Kristen has volunteered 20 hours each month at the ReStore since submitting her application to become a Habitat homeowner in September 2018. Every weekend, she fits several hours into her busy schedule to help move, clean and arrange donations in the store while lending customers a hand. Despite the heat and the heavy lifting, Kristen sees that her commitment will one day soon pay off for her and her family.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of dedication. If this is something you want, you have to be dedicated. The only time I can volunteer is on the weekend, so I make it happen,” Kristen said.
Once the sofa is secured in the pickup, Kristen takes a moment to catch her breath. She allows herself to slip into a daydream of summer just long enough to remember why she’s moving furniture on a hot day in the first place and to remind herself of why she is so certain that what she wants for her family is worth the dedication of her time and energy… She imagines a summer in the near future where she’s sitting on a deck in her backyard watching one of her sons play basketball. Her other son stands close by her grilling burgers as the rolling smoke mingles with the dense, humid afternoon air and sets everyone’s appetite for dinner.
For Kristen, it’s a brief but inspiring pause. While no more than a meditation on the everyday things in life, the details make up her dreams. A backyard, a deck and the very idea of a space of their own for her sons to be outdoors and enjoy themselves on a summer afternoon – they’re dreams that Kristen knew would become a reality only through homeownership.
“I’m looking forward to picking out all of the things to go in my new home. It’s the little things that will make it a home for me and my boys,” Kristen said.
Kristen recognized that the details and dreams that fill homes are especially important for her two sons, Joshua, 16, and Dylan, 14, to experience. She said that she wanted a comfortable and secure place for them to discover who they are as they go through the stage of developing their identities. As with most pairs of siblings, each expresses himself in a unique way, and each prides himself on his individuality.
“Joshua likes gaming and he’s mostly an indoor kid although he still likes mowing the lawn and playing with his dog. Dylan is my athlete. He plays football, school and travel basketball and runs track,” Kristen said.
Also, as they began to grow into adulthood, Kristen saw the need for each of her sons to have his own personal space becoming more relevant. When the boys learned of their mom’s acceptance into the Habitat program, their response showed how much they wanted and required their respective independence.
“The boys were excited to find out we were getting our own home. Dylan, my younger son, is excited about having his own room because right now he’s living in part of the dining room that we’ve sectioned off so he can have his own space. As much as they get along, they’re still teenage boys and they need to keep to themselves at times,” Kristen said.
While personal space and the freedom that comes with it was one of Kristen’s reasons for wanting to own a home for her sons, the idea of homeownership provided her with another sense of freedom – financial independence.
“I’ve been renting since I was at least 20, and I know that in the 16 years since, I could have paid off a home. I look forward to my Habitat house because I know that it will one day be mine. I won’t be paying for something that will never be mine and that I’ll never own,” Kristen said of paying years of rent to landlords of different housing units and apartments.
Gaining financial independence through homeownership was another dream of Kristen’s that came years in the making. She had researched home loans in the past, and she had a well-documented history of paying her rent on time. Despite that, she failed to get a home loan because she had no credit history.
“I looked into a USDA loan and I would have qualified for 100 percent of it, but I had no credit established. I had never in my life used a credit card, and I’d always paid off all of my debts so I couldn’t apply,” Kristen said.
Habitat for Humanity’s mission to provide interest-free mortgages to people who do not qualify for conventional loans was an ideal fit for Kristen. Habitat gave her the opportunity to pay off her home over time without being driven into debt by interest.
Even the benefit of a zero-interest mortgage does not mean that Kristen’s partnership with Habitat is without sacrifice. For a single mother of two teenage sons, time is a precious commodity. She commutes daily from her current residence in Pilot Mountain to Winston-Salem where she works full-time at McNeely Pest Control. Still, Kristen has already accumulated more than 100 of the 250 required hours of “sweat equity” toward her Habitat home by volunteering at the ReStore in Mount Airy at least one day of the weekend every month.
“I’m a single mom, and I work 40 hours a week. Outside of work, when I’m not volunteering, I’m doing house work and taking care of my boys constantly – watching them compete in sports, picking them up from practices, tending to their needs and wants, helping them with schoolwork and making sure they do their chores,” Kristen said.
Kristen acknowledges that keeping up with her many commitments is a team effort she and her family share. Her work ethic has set an example for her sons, who are ready to lend their mom a hand in building their family home. Even as their high school summer schedules get busier, they plan to help on the build site.
“Josh is excited to help. He’s recently put in an application with McNeely for some summer work, but he still plans to help me with construction on our house. Dylan is a rising freshman, and this summer he’ll be doing football strength and conditioning so that will be a lot of back and forth for me, but he still wants to help with projects at the house,” Kristen said.
Another important member of Kristen’s team is a special aunt. Cathy Lane raised Kristen from the age of five and remains a strong influence in her life. Their relationship is made even more special now that “Aunt Cathy,” to Kristen, helps Kristen with her own children.
“Aunt Cathy is my backbone. She helps me take care of the kids and pick them up from practices and appointments. If she wasn’t there for me I don’t know what I’d do,” Kristen said.
“When I was a young girl she took me to church and got me involved in missions that took trips to Emerald Pointe and organized large Bible schools. Now she’s helping me with my boys. She checks on them in the afternoons prior to me getting home from work, and she looks after them so that I do get some occasional alone time. She also helps me treat the boys to dinner or the movies once in a while.”
As her children grow into adults, Kristen hopes to fill her new home with a similar sense of the support, accountability and continuity that her family has provided.
“Now, I know that my boys and I will have a safe and affordable house to live in. We’re excited about a brand new house. Since I won’t have to rely on a landlord anymore, I can get things done myself, and for projects or repairs I might need help with I have family, friends and coworkers. It’s always nice to have someone to count on when you need help,” Kristen said.
The prospect of homeownership has decisively shifted Kristen’s perspective on a number of topics from family to finances.
“There are things I haven’t bought since I’ve been renting. Renting is a way of living, but it’s not a stable place. I’m thinking in the long-term about the future now that I know I’ll be a homeowner,” Kristen said.
With a better future and broader opportunities in mind for herself and her sons, Kristen now advocates to those she encounters through her volunteerism with Habitat for Humanity.
“It’s been a great experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s tired of wasting money on rent,” Kristen said.
“There were a few customers in the ReStore a couple weekends ago who asked me about my partnership with Habitat, and I handed out two or three home applications. I told them, ‘It’s a great experience, but it’s a lot of dedication. You have to be dedicated.’”
Having just weeks ago chosen the property on which her family’s future home will stand, Kristen has an even clearer picture of what her dedication will lead to. The months ahead hold in store many tiring days of lifting, hammering, painting and cleaning, but she knows that, this summer, she is building a better future. Next summer, there will be barbecues and basketball in her backyard.