OCEAN COUNTY – Seven years ago, Katiria Rodriguez didn’t have many options.
She was navigating a web of social programs trying to find something that would give much-needed stability and security for her and her daughters.
“I was young when I had my kids, and went on welfare when I was 19,” she said. “I went to school to better my education, and get a better paying job.”
She and her family are currently living in an apartment in Brick. She works as an executive assistant at Summit Home Health Care and also works per diem as a nurse.
After seven years of working her way through any social programs she qualified for, things are turning around for her this year. A large group of volunteers, civic organizations, government entities and businesses came together. By the end of the year, she’ll be living in her own house.
The Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity will be building a new home for her on a lot on First Avenue in Toms River, near Garfield Avenue. The build is a culmination of work from a number of government agencies, volunteer groups, and local businesses, executive director Suzan Fichtner said.
On January 14, a ceremony was held on the property, in the cold morning hours before it started to flurry. Rodriguez was there with her daughters, Kamiah, 10, and Izabella, 11. They were given shovels to symbolically turn over the first bits of earth.
The groundbreaking ceremony included representatives from most of the groups that had brought the project this far. There was an invocation, remarks from local officials, and a proclamation from Rep. Thomas MacArthur (R-3rd). A Beachwood family who had been the recipient of a previous home were also in attendance. Representatives from M&T Bank were also on hand. With locations in Lakehurst and Toms River, they have been the top funder of the Habitat homes for a few years, Fichtner said. Radio station WJRZ worked with them on a fundraiser at the Ocean County Mall. There, volunteers and construction professionals actually built the walls for the home in the mall’s parking lot. The walls were framed and stood over the course of a weekend as a visual aid for the fundraiser. The walls were later taken down and stored elsewhere.
Rodriguez had volunteered at Solutions To End Poverty Soon, and was later hired as a receptionist there. Through this chain of events she came into contact with the Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity.
“This is a family that is doing everything right, but it takes a lot of resilience,” Fichtner said. “The foundation of life begins with the stability of a home.”
The ambitious goal is to have the family in their home in six months, she said. For that, more fundraising has to be done. They are currently at $75,000. The thermometer drawing used to visually show donations goes up to $150,000, but she said that the final price of everything will likely be closer to $120,000 or $130,000.
That is just for the price of the house itself. In Ocean County, land can often be more expensive.
Fortunately, Toms River was able to find an undersized lot on First Avenue that could be a good place for a home, Mayor Thomas Kelaher said.
The property came into the township’s ownership by way of a tax foreclosure, he said. It was a substandard lot, so there was no real market value for it. Builders would not want to go through the application process necessary to build a small house on an undersized lot.
Therefore, Habitat became a welcome partner in being able to take a useless lot and provide a good use for it, he said.
However, this is just one family finding an affordable place to live. Kelaher acknowledged that there are many more who are struggling.
Toms River has provided for thousands of affordable homes, he said. Every town in New Jersey is required to set aside a portion of development for affordable housing. However, a lot of people’s troubles depend on the job market, he said.
“There’s a job deficit in the county,” he said, describing the mass exodus every morning as residents pile onto the Garden State Parkway to get to work. Some young people are moving out of the area to find jobs, he added.
The Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity usually builds one home a year for deserving families, Fichtner said. This year, there will likely be two. A lot of them, recently, have been in the Manitou Park section of Berkeley Township. In fact, the day before the groundbreaking, the group closed on another property. Although it’s in Manitou, it is also on First Avenue.
This is the 18th home that the Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity will be constructing, according to the group.
For more information, or to contribute time or funds, contact Habitat at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 732-228-7962 ext. 109, or visit nohfh.com/donate-now. Interested parties are also encouraged to “like” Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity on Facebook or visit the site at nohfh.com.