Habitat for Humanity volunteer Tonya Brock likes putting families in homes

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Apr. 1, 2013
Tonya Brock has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity for six years.
Tonya Brock has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity for six years. Photos by D. Coffey.

When Habitat for Humanity of Northeastern Connecticut was looking for a family to build a house for years ago, they held an open house at the Quinebaug Valley Community College. About 12 families showed up. Tonya Brock was a volunteer on Habitat's family selection committee at the time. “You'd think people would have come out of the woodwork,” she said. They didn't. That fact didn't make her job of selecting one candidate any less difficult.

Families must meet HUD median income guidelines. “If they don't make enough money, or they make more than the limit, they're automatically disqualified,” Brock said. Their credit history is important, as are financial delinquencies and debts. And they have to be able to save $1,000 before taking ownership of the house.

“What's most satisfying for me is watching the progression from beginning to end. It's not just the build, but seeing how much a family can grow,” said Brock. “Habitat is about giving a hand up, not a handout. What that really means is building the confidence of a homeowner. It really is a learning experience that goes way beyond building a house.”

Preparing budgets, learning who to call and where to go when something needs repair or replacement are all part of that learning curve. So is working with other people on a common goal. “It demands a certain level of responsibility,” Brock said. “There's a lot more to it than just the actual house. It's about becoming a better citizen and community member.”

The last Habitat build in northeastern Connecticut was a cape in Brooklyn. A series of setbacks delayed the house for two and a half years. “We had definite stalls,” Brock said. Those stalls included blueprint changes, modifications due to zoning regulations, illnesses and an inability to find a clerk of the works to oversee the project. What should have taken a year took more than two. It made it all the harder for new owner Millie Simone to wait before she could move in.

Simone was the applicant chosen for the Brooklyn house. The pool was whittled down to 10 families, then three families before she was selected. “Tonya called me up,” Simone said. “I'll never forget. She said, 'You got picked for the house.' I cried on the phone. I couldn't believe it.”

Brock helped Simone with advice on improving her credit and paying off debts. “Tonya has been awesome,” Simone said. “She's been fantastic. She's helped me from the beginning to the end. Everyone from Habitat has been fantastic.”

Living in her dream home requires hard work and commitment from Simone. She works two jobs, volunteers at the NECCOG animal shelter in Dayville, and shops for an elderly woman once a week. And while the inside of her house is as she wants it, her yard needs work. She wants to clean out a side section and plant grass and flowers.

And Brock is focusing on the merger between Habitat's northeastern and southeastern Connecticut affiliates. She hopes the group will be able to serve more people through the merger. “They have resources in place to do things right, including a paid executive director and a building coordinator,” she said. Habitat-SC also has the “faithful framers,” a group of retirees who work Mondays through Fridays.

“We've been a ragtag group of passionate volunteers, but there are limits to what we can do when we have full time jobs that we're working around,” Brock said. With the new arrangement, she hopes that one house a year will be constructed. “We won't be tied down to just Saturdays,” she said.

For more information on Habitat for Humanity, go to www.habitat.org. A new website reflecting the merger of Habitat for Humanity of Northeastern Connecticut and Habitat for Humanity of Southeastern Connecticut should be formed in the near future.

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