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November 21, 2014

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How Habitat for Humanity changed their lives

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STEVE MARCUS

Liz Epperson poses with her dog Mi Corazon, a four-year-old chihuahua, in front of her home in Henderson Sunday, April 13, 2014. Epperson put 450 hours of sweat equity into the house which was built in 1997, she said.

Habitat for Humanity Recipients

April Kiper and Stacie Allen, sisters who are past Habitat for Humanity home recipients, believe strongly that these gifts changed their lives permanently. Launch slideshow »

Since Habitat for Humanity hammered the nail into its first Las Vegas home in 1991, its message has remained the same — it’s a hand up, not a hand out.

Over those 23 years, Habitat for Humanity has helped find homes for 95 families in the Las Vegas area. Launched in 1976, the nonprofit organization has helped build or repair houses for more than 750,000 families around the world. It has provided stability for low-income families living paycheck to paycheck by offering permanent, affordable housing.

The program operates on the principle that owning a home can change everything. Families receive their keys during a red-ribbon ceremony. Tears of joy are shed and future plans are made, but once the fanfare is over, they have to adjust to the realities of owning a home. Years go by, kids grow up and lives change.

But does it work?

“From the families we’ve been talking to, there’s an element of stability in their lives that has never existed,” said Meg Delor, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Las Vegas.

The nonprofit organization tries to prepare each family for owning a home, prevent clients from falling into bankruptcy and encourage them to focus on improving other areas of their lives. Each family goes through a nine-week financial course, receives tutorials on home maintenance and puts in more than 380 hours work on a Habitat for Humanity home. The process weeds out any “system workers,” or people looking for a freebie or interested in flipping the property for a profit.

“What’s great about our program is we are not going to set people up to fail,” said Jackie Valdera, housing director. “We’re very upfront with the filtering process so we get dedicated homeowners.”

Today, the organization has clients who have gone back to school, improved job situations and are helping their children succeed. Second generations of recipients are entering the program, ready to own their own home.

The Sunday caught up with some of the organization’s early recipients to see what effect homeownership has had on their lives:

Liz Epperson, homeowner since 1997

Liz Epperson once raised her three children in a Las Vegas government housing community nicknamed the Third World.

The community at Searles and Eastern avenues was a place where gang shootings echoed at night and crack cocaine seemed everywhere. One neighbor shot and killed his wife, another was killed by gang members. Her children once walked past a bloodied couch parked on a curb on their way home from school. Inside their home, the asbestos made them sick and cockroaches fell into open cups of water.

She wanted out for her daughter and two mentally challenged sons, but it was all she could afford on her salary at MGM Grand. Then a woman she was serving in the employee dining room at the resort told her about Habitat for Humanity.

“I thought there was no way I would get a house,” Epperson said.

Habitat for Humanity gave her a way out when she didn’t think there was one. She qualified for the program in 1996 and a year later moved her family in.

“It was the first time in many, many years that I had actually felt safe, and I felt that my children were safer,” Epperson said.

More than 16 years later, her shelves are filled with family photos.

Her home has been everything that government housing was not. The neighborhood on Moser Drive is a place where neighbors look out for each other and her children could play outside. She’s held family parties and birthdays there and watched her children grow into adults.

It gave her the stability she needed to finish school and earn her degree in social work, which allowed her to leave her job at MGM for a higher paying one in the Division of Child and Family Services.

But most of all, Habitat for Humanity gave her something she could call her own. It’s become a place her two sons can visit and feel the warmth of memories of childhood, and it will be there for her daughter when she’s ready to own a home.

April Kiper, homeowner since 2005

Stacie Allen, homeowner since 2001

April Kiper’s life was in transition when she received a call from Habitat for Humanity 10 years ago. She was a recovering crack cocaine addict living in transitional housing. She didn’t have custody of her children, but she had a job and was putting her life back together.

She applied for Habitat for Humanity after watching her sister, Stacie Allen, acquire a home through the program. For the siblings, who were raised by their grandparents and lived on Van Buren Street, owning a home meant life stability. Kiper wanted that for her children and herself.

She doubted she’d be approved, but then her phone rang.

“It meant anything is possible,” Kiper said.

Today, Kiper lives a few blocks from Allen, who lives on Hassell Avenue in West Las Vegas. Homeownership has helped provide balance in their lives.

Allen, who worked as a part-time physical education assistant in the Clark County School District and now is a clerk at Fong Elementary School, was able to save money, buy a car and take her children on yearly vacations. Kiper remained sober and gained the confidence to become a licensed Realtor.

“Habitat for Humanity is a saving grace,” Kiper said. “It gives you hope, puts a sparkle in your eye when the lights are dim.”

More than anything, they were able to give their children a place they could return to and say, “That’s home.”

Damarlo Price, son of Virginia Price, first Habitat for Humanity homeowner in Las Vegas

Damarlo Price remembers former President Jimmy Carter coming to the ribbon-cutting of his family’s brand new Habitat for Humanity home on Jackson Avenue in 1991. He watched Carter hammer one of the numbers of their street address onto the exterior. It was a big day for the Prices. By the time he was 14 years old, Damarlo’s family had lived in four homes. When he saw his mother, Virginia, crying tears of joy, he knew it was an important moment.

“It was a fresh start for her,” he said. “It was like starting over.”

The home gave Damarlo and his siblings space. They played basketball in the driveway and video games inside. A sign in the kitchen has been there since Day One: “Bless the Price home.”

Even now, he can detect that “new home” scent.

Five years ago, his mother moved back to her hometown in Austin, Texas. He persuaded her not to sell the home.

Price, 37, lives there now with his daughter, Quanecia. Although it may not look the same, it is still home to him.

He’d like to renovate, maybe bring back that new-home look. Virginia Price has always been there for her family, and Damarlo plans to make sure the home is still there for her when she retires.

“She deserves it,” Price said. “She really does.”

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