One of the most notable characteristics of Donna and Stephen’s home is the many portraits of love throughout. Hanging on one wall is a wedding photo of Stephen’s parents, and on another is a large, framed portrait of Donna’s parents. Upon further inspection, you’ll find some smaller framed pictures of younger versions of Donna and Stephen, formally appointed in more portrait photos. The blush of a blooming love is apparent in those images and hasn’t lost its rosy hue in over 20 years. The love story of Donna and Stephen is still being written just as these smaller photos are still awaiting a shelf or wall to be hung on. Donna confesses, “I’ve redecorated over a dozen times since moving in!”
This house was built with love. Your first glimpse is when your eyes rest upon the vibrant purple door. That joyful color continues as you enter the home’s open concept floor plan and meet the family who lives there… Donna, her husband Stephen, and their beautiful daughter Amber, a most un-typical teen in that she very much seems to enjoy the company of her parents. Their home was created with love.
Practically speaking, the house was built through a trifecta of support systems aligning. One is Habitat for Humanity and its “Sweat Equity” program for building homes. Another is Norwescap and our Individual Development Program, which provides a dollar-to-dollar match in savings. And the third was stimulus money provided through the Covid pandemic to help families stay afloat through an unprecedented economic, as well as health, crisis.
There is a fourth factor tying all this together. It’s in the title of this story, and it’s the guiding principle of so many successes – Love.
Donna and Stephen met many years ago. They had actually been friends in a group of couples during their first marriages. Donna even babysat for Stephen’s children, who so many years later would become her stepchildren. But all those children, 2 of hers and 2 of his, are grown up adults now and embarking on families of their own. They are new grandparents to a 1-month-old baby girl.
It’s evident that Donna gives great care to all those in her circle; their teen daughter, the family pets, the new granddaughter, her special-needs client she works for, and her new neighbors – but she has a special loving way of caring for Stephen. You can see in the way she completes many of his sentences, and often asks if he needs anything, be it a refill of coffee or a prop of his pillow. He admits, with palpable gratitude, “I wouldn’t even be alive today if it weren’t for her.”
Stephen is disabled. He worked for many years, and truly worked himself to exhaustion; but he still tells stories with pride of how he was a truck driver and mechanic of large engines. His last job was overseeing the maintenance and repair of a fleet of 22 trucks, doing the routine brake jobs and oil changes. Looking back, he wishes he had seen what Donna had been distressed over back then. “I yelled at him all the time, that he should wear a mask with all the dust he worked in. His clothes were covered in dirt from the gravel pit, and you know that gets in your lungs. It didn’t help that he was a smoker back then too.” Their love story nearly ended there.
Stephen ended up in the hospital, nearly comatose for days, having his kidneys tapped to release 28 pounds of water retention from his body as his health was failing. The doctors asked Donna, in all her grief, if she thought Stephen might be interested in ‘the patch’ to help him quit smoking once he pulled through. She wasn’t wasting any time waiting for him to wake up, exclaiming “Yes!” and applying the patch to his back while he remained unconscious.
While Stephen did get a second chance, this health scare was the end of his career and the beginning of his life with COPD. He eventually regained consciousness and came back to Donna, thankfully losing his craving to smoke – to this day, he says he detests the smell of smoke. (Amber, their teen daughter, wholeheartedly approves, as the ultimate anti-cigarette advocate in the household).
It wasn’t just the secret placement of nicotine patches that represent Donna’s covert actions of love. She also didn’t tell Stephen about applying to Habitat for Humanity in January 2021. As long-term renters, they had a shared dream of home ownership but didn’t think they were in the position to make it come true. When a letter arrived 2 months later announcing their preliminary acceptance into the program, her ‘gig was up’ and she had to share the news with him. He was skeptical. Even though there is much work involved, and you are financially responsible for the purchase, Stephen admits it felt “like getting in on the lottery, because you’re starting in a new house.”
Preliminary acceptance is not as simple as a lottery, though; the family had to prove themselves to be fully accepted. “You need to provide proof that you wouldn’t be a risk for foreclosure,” explains Donna. While there are many special opportunities provided, such as 0% interest on their mortgage and the first year of homeowner’s insurance covered, you also need to “get picked”, both Stephen and Donna say, nearly simultaneously. “You are conditionally approved, based on your income and consistency with work history,” Donna finishes the explanation. Plus, the “Swe’Eg”: a shortened version of what they call “Sweat Equity”.
The term ‘sweat equity’ refers to a person’s non-monetary contribution towards a venture or project; in most cases, it comes in the form of physical labor, mental effort, and time. In this case, it’s a new homeowner having an opportunity to invest in their home along with volunteers.
The Habitat for Humanity website explains it this way:
“Sweat equity is a transformational experience for families and a cornerstone of our homeownership program,” says Sonia Lee, director of homeowner and mortgage services at Habitat for Humanity International. “The skills and knowledge gained through activities like volunteering on a build site or taking financial literacy classes help set new homeowners up for success long-term.”
To summarize an answer to ‘What is Sweat Equity?’:
“If you work the hours, you will appreciate it more.” – Donna Stefano
Donna dutifully met every requirement to move her conditional approval to the dream of home ownership that she and Stephen had almost given up on. Besides the application fee, there was also a requirement of $500 down and a total of $3,000 invested to get started. But as a working family living ‘paycheck to paycheck,’ the Stefano family didn’t usually have this kind of extra money. A Covid stimulus check was the key to completing this part of the puzzle – once that check arrived, Donna mailed the full amount right over to Habitat for Humanity as their down payment.
But they mailed it back!
She was baffled at first, but then thrilled to learn that there was yet another partner stepping up to help make their homeownership dreams come true. Norwescap’s Individual Development Account (IDA), working with Habitat for Humanity, was inviting the family to be part of our “Dollars to Dreams” matched savings program. When individuals enroll, they receive a dollar-to-dollar match towards their goals, while participating in financial literacy workshops to support their long-term planning and stability. Donna can still recall the titles of most of the classes she took and names them while holding up her fingers to count: “General Budgeting, Personal Budgeting, Being a Good Neighbor, Keeping Your Home Healthy…”. Even if her recall fails, Donna has neatly organized binders of all her class material. She points out the next few pages of highlighted spreadsheets, tracking the hours spent by their many friends and extended family members who enthusiastically volunteered to support the “Sweat Equity” commitment for their new home.
The knowledge of construction they gained is as evident as their appreciation for the opportunity to contribute hands-on to crafting this home. They use slang like “dig dirt” to indicate the beginning steps of the foundation, deftly point out “superior walls,” and contrast a “stick build” versus a “modular.” And, their good fortune gets paid forward as they continue to support new neighbors with their own home builds.
It’s only been 3 months since the Stefanos officially moved in. They are still creating their nest. Amber has marked her teenage territory in the finished basement with her version of a living room, complete with a fuzzy blue rug and coffee table. Stephan’s CPAP oxygen machine is carefully placed on the bedside table. Donna continues to ruffle through housewarming gifts, finding just the right places to display them. Treasures such as a silver dollar seashell painted in a tropical scene and airbrushed ‘Steve & Donna, Ocean City 2001,’ a calendar showcasing Pugsley, the family dog as the featured model for January 2023, extensive family photos and a collection of ceramic figurines. As you exit through the front door, a framed quilt hangs to your left. Donna tells the story of it being gifted to her by a client when she left her role at Molly Maids.
Then, the last image is a child’s drawing of 3 circles with dots for faces. An adult filled in the label: ‘The Stefano Family.’ It was a housewarming gift from Donna’s current client, Sean Patrick, a child with Downs Syndrome for whom she has cared for 7 years now, starting when he was 3 years old. The collection of items is representative of the love story this family has written, with the helping hands and loving contributions of many friends, neighbors, and supporters – The House That Love Built.
Dawn Hartfelder – Updated 2/16/2023
- To learn more about Norwescap Individual Development Account (IDA) check out our webpage here: Norwescap IDA – Matched Savings
- To learn about other services provided by Norwescap Financial Empowerment check out our webpage here: Norwescap Financial Empowerment
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