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Two families received the keys to their new St. Helens family homes this week.

COLUMBIA COUNTY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY - The newest Columbia County Habitat for Humanity homeowners received their keys in February 2021.Two families got the keys to their new forever homes earlier this week.

Columbia County Habitat for Humanity constructed the two St. Helens townhomes, each of which will be home to a single mom and her children.

Ginny Carlson, one of the new homeowners, was busy packing up her rental on Friday.

"I'm glad I'm never moving again, that's for sure," said Carlson, who served two terms on the St. Helens City Council.

On Saturday, Carlson and her kids will load up the moving truck and officially move into their new home. The nonprofit Michelle's Love provides support to single parents going through cancer treatment. Along with Branches Church, Michelle's Love, from which Carlson first received support five years ago after she was diagnosed with cancer, will assist with the move.COLUMBIA COUNTY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY - Ginny Carlson receives the keys to her new home from Columbia County Habitat for Humanity volunteer Bill King.

"I've gotten better at accepting the fact that it's okay to get help," Carlson said of her feelings now, compared to when she first needed help as a single mom with cancer.

"This changes the future for my kids," Carlson said of her new home, referring to her daughter, Kaylee, a 20-year-old studying at Portland Community College, and her son, Ben, a junior at St. Helens High School.

Gentry Harris moved her family into the other townhome.

Both families received a $300 gift card to the Scappoose Grocery Outlet, a quilt made by members of First Lutheran's quilting group, and a bible with prayers from each of the five churches that assisted in the project as a "Faith Build." Those churches were Christian Church of St. Helens, First United Methodist Church, Christ Episcopal Church, First Lutheran Church and Plymouth Presbyterian Church.

The pandemic caused months-long delays in completing the home.COLUMBIA COUNTY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY - Gentry Harris and her son hold up a quilt donated by a local church group.

Last February, 52 people from the churches came together to put together the hundreds of pieces of Ikea cabinets for the homes. Not long after, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and Habitat for Humanity's traditional volunteer format was no longer an option.

"Once the virus hit, we were only allowed to have a few of our regular volunteers," Columbia County Habitat for Humanity director Jennifer Anderson said.

Most of the construction — aside from aspects like electrical and plumbing — is done by volunteers. Many of the volunteers are retired from construction trades.

Dick King, who handed the keys over to the new homeowners, is a retired carpenter and key volunteer with Habitat. Other volunteers work in building-related jobs, like King's son, Ben King, an architect who is designing Habitat's next home build.

But large groups also come from community organizations and schools. Since the pandemic hit, those groups weren't an option.

Anderson said the pandemic also slowed supply chains for building materials and supply chains, adding to the delays.

At the ReStore, Habitat's store selling used home furnishings and home improvement supplies, volunteer availability decreased as older volunteers couldn't take the risk of contracting COVID-19. The ReStore closed for a couple of months at the beginning of the pandemic and is now open on reduced hours with increased safety measures, including isolating donations for a few days before putting them out for sale.COLUMBIA COUNTY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY - Kaylee, Ben, and mom Ginny Carlson stand at the door to their new home.

Anderson said the ReStore accounts for roughly half of the organization's budget, with the other half coming from grants, individual donors and mortgages.

Getting a home through Habitat for Humanity is a years-long process. When the organization has a piece of property ready for construction, families can apply, first through Habitat, and then for a U.S. Department of Agriculture home loan.

"It's not a giveaway program," Anderson explained. Families cover a portion of the home cost with a mortgage and have to put in 400 hours of "sweat equity" — assisting with construction, completing financial education and helping in the ReStore.

The program completed its first house in 2001. They've picked up the pace since 2013, building one house a year, Anderson said, in addition to smaller projects like installing wheelchair ramps and repainting homes.

Debbie Ritthaler became the program's first homeowner 20 years ago. Today, she is a key volunteer and was there, snapping photos, when the 10th and 11th homeowners received their keys.


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