June 18, 2007

Newburgh members help make an American dream come true

Source: NYSUT News Wire
Caption: Newburgh TA members look out the window of a rehabbed house, from left, Vicky Pittman, George Elbowles Jr., Anne Vollmer and Suzanne Dawes. Photo by Michael Weisbrot.

The abandoned brick buildings at 58-60 Clark St. in Newburgh, right next to St. George's Cemetery, were crumbling. Thanks in part to efforts by the Newburgh Teachers Association, they will soon see new life.

NTA member Anne Vollmer, a dedicated volunteer at the Newburgh chapter of Habitat for Humanity, brought the idea of sponsoring a Habitat project to her union. Vollmer knew that steady housing in a child's life could lead to a steady education.

"It is so important for kids to have a stable physical home while in school," she explained. Without, say, a kitchen table or an outlet to plug in a lamp, completing homework is trying.

Last year, the union decided to team up with Habitat for Humanity.

"As professionals, we know how important the home environment is," said Vicky Pittman, NTA vice president. "We felt very strongly to put our money where our mouth is."

The money, in this case, amounted to $30,000. That's what the union would need to raise to sponsor a housing project.

NTA President Phil Cordella suggested the local begin a telephone campaign to solicit donations from members, Vollmer said. Through faculty payroll deductions, donations and fund-raising events such as a walk-a-thon, the NTA eventually raised $36,000.

"There has been a huge commitment by educational institutions in general," said Judy Byrne, an NTA retiree who chairs the Newburgh Habitat's family selection committee.

Schools are as important to Habitat as they are to its families. When the agency chooses new construction sites, proximity to educational institutions is a key factor, said Deirdre Glenn, executive director of the Newburgh chapter.

In June, with volunteers from Canisius High working on framing, 58-60 Clark St. was a skeleton of what it will be. By January, Vollmer said, the house should be ready for a family.

The NTA's project on Clark Street was the site that Keith Nelson, an assistant U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, chose to visit in June to commemorate National Homeownership Month.

Since its beginning in 1999, the Newburgh chapter of Habitat has completed 27 houses. In progress are three renovations, including Clark Street, and one new home.

Applicants must demonstrate the need for a house, be in the "very low gross income" bracket and complete "sweat equity" hours, working on Habitat homes. Families that qualify can purchase the home through a 20-year, no-interest mortgage.

Home ownership also makes children proud of their parents. "It's a dream come true, and they made it happen," said Vollmer. "It's so emotional when kids see their parents succeed."

Meanwhile, on Clark Avenue, HUD's Nelson was looking forward to shedding his suit for the day. "They tell me I am in charge of some windows," he said, adding that his goal was "building another place for another homeowner to experience the American dream."

- Andrew Waite