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1

Grandma Elsa De La Cruz, mom Elisa Acety De La Cruz, Eliana K. Ortiz Acety De La Cruz, and dad Eldin Ortiz outside of their home being built at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Grandma Elsa De La Cruz, mom Elisa Acety De La Cruz, Eliana K. Ortiz Acety De La Cruz, and dad Eldin Ortiz outside of their home being built at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

2

Eliana signed the walls of her new home at the groundbreaking earlier this year. The family hopes to move in within the next month or so. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Eliana signed the walls of her new home at the groundbreaking earlier this year. The family hopes to move in within the next month or so. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

3

The Andriole Group High Tower volunteered in early April, to help Eliana’s family build their new home at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

The Andriole Group High Tower volunteered in early April, to help Eliana’s family build their new home at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

4

Eliana, who is partial to red flowers, carried one at the groundbreaking, and she plans to plant red flowers in her flower garden when her family moves into their new home at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Eliana, who is partial to red flowers, carried one at the groundbreaking, and she plans to plant red flowers in her flower garden when her family moves into their new home at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

5

Angela Clemmons, of Madison, not only volunteered in the Dancing with the Stars fundraiser, helping to raise $60,000, she also visted with the family at the groundbreaking and left a message of good will and support on the walls. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Angela Clemmons, of Madison, not only volunteered in the Dancing with the Stars fundraiser, helping to raise $60,000, she also visted with the family at the groundbreaking and left a message of good will and support on the walls. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

6

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

7

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

8

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

9

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

10

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

11

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

12

Elisa and her family with Don Epperson Sr., President, Raise the Roof, at the family’s groundbreaking for their new house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Elisa and her family with Don Epperson Sr., President, Raise the Roof, at the family’s groundbreaking for their new house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

13

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof

Volunteers and well-wishers left expressions of support on the walls during the groundbreaking of the house at #2 Strong Street in New Haven. (Photo courtesy of Raise the Roof )

A Place to Call Home

Published May 04, 2016 • Last Updated 04:33 pm, May 03, 2016

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On a recent spring day, Eliana’s dad took her outside to blow soap bubbles. They stepped outside onto the front stoop of the apartment building on Derby Avenue in New Haven they call home, next to the narrow strip of dirt and grass, merely a suggestion of a front lawn, that borders the busy street. Next to the apartment building on the other side, young men hang out, talking on their cell phones, having fun, and, sometimes, quarrelling. Across the street is a liquor store where customers sometimes gather in the parking lot or nearby to drink.

Eliana, 7 years old, sat down with her dad, and began to play. But not for long. A friendly discussion nearby turned loud. Eldin Ortiz, her dad, worried it might turn mean, as they all too often did, hurried Eliana back inside, to their tidy living room where Eliana’s little bike sits, parked, in a corner, unused because the street outside is way too busy for that kind of thing.

Next to the bike with the pink seat, pink handlebars, pink rims, and peace signs, is a neat stack of boxes. In those boxes are the family’s belongings, being packed up for a move to a home that represents both hope and new start for Eliana, her dad, her mom Elisa Acety De La Cruz, and her grandmom Elsa De La Cruz. That home is being built for the family, with the family’s help, by Raise the Roof, the shoreline connection to Habitat for Humanity. The goal of the group is to help eliminate poverty with the help of the community by providing financial support, volunteer labor, and leadership for projects that include building and providing homes for families that have been carefully vetted like this one.

The family’s new home is being built a short drive away, on the outskirts of New Haven. To get to their new neighborhood, you have to turn off the main road, and then turn, and turn, and turn again until you are on a little one-way street that backs up to a school and a playground filled after school hours with children riding their bikes and trikes, accompanied by parents with strollers. On the street itself, on a recent spring day, there was only the sound of the children on the playground and the thumping of a basketball, as a little boy played with his mother in the street right across from where Eliana’s new home is being built.

Space to Run and Play

Mom Elisa’s ideas about what home should be were forged in the neighborhood of her youth, when she lived on a piece of land owned and developed by her grandfather in Puerto Rico. Her family lived on the property in one home, along with aunts and uncles and cousins in homes nearby, a total of 11 families in all.

The family often got together for barbecues, dinners, and celebrations—it didn’t matter whose birthday it was. There would be the smell of hamburgers and hot dogs in the air, served with chicken and corn on the cob, and lots of space to run, ride bikes, and play.

When Elisa moved to Connecticut, she got a job working at a college, and then a medical supply company. She lived on Peck Street in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven. What she didn’t know is that every day when she would leave from work, the boy next door was watching her. Eldin finally got up the courage to ask her out and they fell in love.

Eldin used to work in an industrial laundromat, but he was injured on the job, and then, again, later in a car accident. So, while he works at home, taking charge of cooking and being a father to his daughter, he is also looking for a job he can do outside the home. Elisa works at Lulac Headstart in New Haven.

For a while, they lived with relatives in Guilford, where their daughter was able to ride her bike, and where they were able to have a garden. Then they realized they needed a home of their own. Eldin’s cousin was the beneficiary of a Habitat house also in New Haven, and so they decided to go to some meetings to find out about the program, and then to apply.

“I want her to grow up in a place where she can be free,” Elisa says. “We don’t feel safe here. We want to be able to feel safe outside, like we felt in Puerto Rico. We could run freely and play freely. My father bought her that bike, but the only place she can ride it is when we go to Guilford.”

Helping by Hammering Nails, Dancing the Night Away

To help Elisa, Eldin, and their family realize their goal of becoming homeowners, volunteers from all over the shoreline have been doing everything from hammering nails to dancing the night away.

The first ever Gala of Stars: Dancing for the Cause fundraiser at the Arthur Murray Guilford Dance Center took place on Friday, Nov. 13. The event successfully raised more than $60,000 to help build Eliana’s new home.The 2015 stars included Eileen and Tom Banisch, Angela Clemmons and Peter O’Donnell, Deb and Russell Heinrich, Dodie Milardo and Will Gambardella, Nancy and Don Rankin, Heidi Voight and Todd Russell, Joy Grabow Weaver and Tom Scarice, and Grace Zhang and Alex Taubes.

At the groundbreaking of Eliana’s new home, volunteers, including some of the people who participated in the Gala of Stars, wrote messages of support and hope on the walls being built. “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. Welcome home!” “May your home be filled with prosperity and hope!” “So honored to partner with you building this house.” “Home Sweet Home ...” and, from Eliana, written with the help of the extended family present at the groundbreaking, while she held a big red flower, “This is my house. Eliana K. Ortiz Acety 3/6/16”

Working Side by Side

Now that the house is being built, Raise the Roof is organizing volunteer groups to work each weekend, alongside the family, says Donna Gregory of Madison, a volunteer with Raise the Roof.

On a recent weekend, Andriole Group HighTower, a wealth management firm from Madison run by Donna’s husband, worked on the front porch, while the family installed insulation inside the house. Employees from Structural Graphics, a company in Essex, worked on the house another weekend. First Congregational Church of Guilford volunteered for a weekend, as did Madison-based Temple Beth Tikvah congregation.

The Raise the Roof board is scheduled for a build date in early June.

“Board members wear many hats, including construction hats,” Gregory said with a smile.

As for the family itself, in order to qualify for the program, it had to meet specific and stringent criteria developed by Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, which selects the families and then refers them to organizations like Raise the Roof, which then works with the family to build the homes.

The application process includes a credit check, a sex offender check, an office interview, 14 hours of volunteer work, and a home interview. To be picked, family members have to show that they need housing because they are living in an unsafe area, because their current rent exceeds 35 percent of their net income, or that there are other problems with the current housing situation. The family also has to have a demonstrated ability to play closing costs and a down payment, and to afford mortgage payments. They must be U.S. citizens, or permanent residents. They also must be willing to put in at least 400 hours of sweat equity on the home. And those are just some of the requirements.

The goal of Habitat for Humanity is not only to help families become homeowners in safe neighborhoods, but also to help revitalize neighborhoods in New Haven. The organization often builds homes side by side, or in nearby neighborhoods, to help improve those neighborhood blocks. Rescuing abandoned properties and turning them into homes is part of the organization’s core mission. The families selected for the program purchase the homes from Habitat at or below cost with a zero-percent interest, 25-year mortgage, which creates affordable payments, and a fund that can be used for future builds for other families.

Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven has helped more than 90 families become homeowners over the past 30 years, and plans to help many more. This is Raise the Roof’s 12th build.

“One of the Lucky Ones”

Elisa is thrilled to be moving with her family to her new neighborhood.

“We are one of the lucky ones. It is a one-way street. There are people there who live in their own homes as well. Every Saturday when we go to work on the house, it is quiet. There is a school behind us, and a park next to that,” she says.

She also is excited to be living next to another Habitat house going up, that will house another family like hers that has been accepted into the program. The families met when they volunteered to help build a house for another family.

“They are very nice, and very sweet, and very helpful, from Puerto Rico as well.”

The other Habitat family has two children, one Eliana’s age, and another one who is only two to three years old.

“Everything about this is a dream come true,” she says. “We always wanted to have our own house, living next to nice and good people. A house is not just a place to sleep. It’s a place where you can make your family and friends welcome in a safe place.”

While the family waits to move into its new home, Eliana plays inside the family’s apartment on Derby Avenue with her hairdressing set, her Barbie house, her dolls from the movie Frozen, her chalkboard and easel, and a small kitchen set up on the window sill that includes a plastic toaster, blender, and iron. She likes to cook, just like her dad.

As for dad, he can’t wait to move in. He dreams of making rice and beans, barbeque, pork chops, fish, in his new kitchen. He reels off the recipes.

“I’m going to sleep in that kitchen,” he says, laughing.

For the house warming in the new house he plans to make a special dish called mofongo with shrimp, served over a mixture of garlic, butter, onions, and green plantains. They’ll be inviting volunteers and family members and co-workers and friends to the house warming. In fact, the co-workers are planning the details of the house warming already, Elisa says.

Both Elisa and Eldin say they are so happy.

And nervous.

“There’s the responsibility of it, too,” she says. “Every Saturday when we go to work at the house, we think about what we’re going to do with the basement. What are we going to do with the yard.”

They’re planning a kitchen garden with cilantro, tomatoes, and peppers.

Eliana is planning a flower garden.

What kind of flowers?

She thinks for just a minute.

“Red,” she says.

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