It took three years of sweat and labor, with help from over 2,000 volunteers, to make the modest one-bedroom home ready for its new owner.
There was no doubt, however, that she was ready.
Retired teacher Diane Chambers, 67, received the keys to her new home from Habitat for Humanity on Monday.
“I wanted to have something just for me, that I can fix on my own, (where) I could just bathe in the happiness,” Chambers said.
She will move from a rental in Burlington City to the township next month, marking the first time in living memory that someone in her family has owned his or her home. The house is on a bustling but peaceful street, where children play on the sidewalk and dogs run around in backyards.
“The impact is that being a homeowner gives you a safe, decent, stable place to live. Diane’s not going to have to worry about a landlord evicting her, and she’s not going to have to worry about being booted out of a property that she’s renting,” said Lori Leonard, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Burlington County.
It is a common misconception that the charity gives out homes for free, Leonard said. In fact, Chambers will pay a zero-interest mortgage on her home. She also had to complete more than 250 hours of volunteer work as well as take weeks of classes on homeownership and financial literacy.
“She spent years in this program, working and building,” Leonard said.
To fill her volunteer requirement, Chambers worked on her own house and at ReStore, a shop that Habitat operates in Maple Shade to raise money for overhead costs. She also helped raise awareness about Habitat’s mission, so that more people might sign up.
Chambers volunteered for Habitat many years ago, without ever expecting she would one day become a recipient.
“Not at (that) point did I think that I ever would be a recipient at all,” she said.
Chambers taught special education students in New York City before moving to Burlington City. As she grew older, she realized it was her dream to own her own place.
“It’s knowing that it’s mine, that I don’t have to pay for it for someone else, that I can do what I want, I can live the life that I want,” Chambers said. “It changes my life dramatically.”
It was a lengthy process. She applied in May 2011, and her application was accepted that September. The house was not built from scratch, but it was in such disrepair that it had to be gutted and completely rehabbed. The entire floor, for example, had to be replaced because of termite damage.
An enthusiastic crowd of friends, family members and volunteers attended Monday’s dedication ceremony to celebrate her success and hard work, including Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra. It’s the 43rd home built or rehabbed by Habitat for Humanity of Burlington County since it was established in 1987.
The ceremony featured numerous symbolic gifts, such as a broom to sweep out bad fortune, salt to add spice to Chambers’ life, and bread to ward off hunger. George Finan, of Breaker Electrical, whose company donated $10,000 worth of electrical work, handed Chambers a candle, “so that the new home will never know darkness, even though I wired it.”
Dan Higgins Wood Flooring donated floors, and DaVinci Construction provided a roof. Other sponsors included Association Headquarters, Mark Systems, Geico, Lowe’s, Tozour Energy, American Water, SodaStream, Equipment Depot, Beneficial Bank, and Day and Zimmerman.
Teenager William Blum, of Mount Laurel, even donated his bar mitzvah money to buy home goods for Chambers and one year of office supplies for Habitat’s headquarters.
In her spare time, Chambers volunteers at SisterHood Inc. in Burlington City and is very active in the Buddhist community of Soka Gakkai International, where she is known as “Sister Maat.” At the dedication ceremony, a friend selected a quote from 13th-century monk Nichiren to describe the value of charity: “If one lights a fire for others, one will light one’s own way.”
Chambers’ sister, Barbara Griffin, said she was “elated,” as tears ran down her cheeks. When asked if she ever expected her sister to own her own home, Griffin had to take a moment to compose herself before answering.
“She’s the first, just the first in the family, and I feel good about that,” she said. “I really feel good about that. She’s the first, and she worked so hard.”