Homes for the holidays

The Harrell (left) and Lamb (right) families received the keys to their new Habitat for Humanity homes just in time for Thanksgiving.

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties will be celebrating with 11 new homeowners before the year’s end. Two St. Pete families, the Harrells and the Lambs, are already settling into their new digs, having received their keys this past week.

The Harrell family partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build their home in the Childs Park area, which they purchased with a zero percent interest mortgage.

To be a Habitat homeowner partner, participants must demonstrate a need for adequate shelter, and the Harrells definitely had a need.

“We are busting at the seams,” said Carrissa Harrell, who works as a food service professional in a local elementary school. Along with her husband, Devin Sr., who works as a plant operator for Pinellas County Schools, they work hard to set a good example for their children and pride themselves on being a close-knit family.

The family of six was stuffed into a small two-bedroom apartment. Now in their new home, they will have room to spread out. They also won’t have to worry about substandard living conditions taking a toll on their everyday lives.

“There are always water leaks in our home that make it impossible to have a safe and healthy home,” she said of their previous apartment.

Now, the Harrells can concentrate on making their new house a home.

The Harrell children are a diverse bunch.  D’Aja, the oldest, is an all-around performer and loves to sing and dance. In contrast, Deondra is their “reserved” child who loves to be with the family and watch movies.

Their son Devin has a love for all things superhero, along with wrestling and being outdoors. Dania is the youngest of the pack and is known for her strong, outgoing personality.

She “basically runs the house. She loves to be the boss,” said Devin Harrell.

The Harrell house marks the 649th home that Habitat has built in the area.

“It’s amazing to see how many we’ve built,” said President and CEO Mike Sutton, “and many of those, about 75, has been in south St. Pete.”

Clarissa Harrell held back tears of joy as her cousins Tamara Harrell and Dominique Baptiste, who have Habitat homes a few blocks away, handed over the keys to their new home last Saturday.

Newly elected Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers spoke briefly, acknowledging the need for the Harrells to give back by helping guide the next family through the program’s process. She was especially excited about another family moving into her neck of the woods, the Childs Park neighborhood.

“There is nothing like owning a home,” Flowers said, “and I’m so happy that not only do you own a home, but you own a home in a community. You could not have selected a better organization to give your time and your talents to.”

The habitat program is not for the faint of heart. The Harrells invested 500 sweat equity hours and completed some 21 homeowner education classes consisting of how to budget with a mortgage and other essential lessons like how to be a good neighbor.

“When we came into this program, it was definitely not easy, but it’s a blessing,” said Clarissa.

Due to COVID-19, Habitat — who relies on volunteers to keep building costs low — was forced to use subcontractors instead of volunteers. They could have easily suspended construction, but they eagerly agreed to support affordable housing in St. Pete by continuing the work.

The Harrells’ home was sponsored with funds raised through Habitat for Humanity’s yearly gala held each spring. “We usually raise enough funds to build five to seven homes,” Sutton said. “It takes so many partners to come together to make a home a reality.”

As the presenting sponsor, Crown Automotive helped made the Harrell’s house a reality.

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Kendra Lamb and Devin and Carrissa Harrell have a few things in common. They all work extremely hard to provide for their families, all three are employed with Pinellas County Schools and they all will be celebrating Thanksgiving in their new homes.

Lamb has worked as a middle school teacher for six years. She is currently studying to obtain a master’s degree in Educational Leadership while still working and taking care of her family.

“I enjoy spending time with my family and challenging the minds of 12-13-year-olds.”

Her oldest son, Jayden, loves sports, specifically watching football and playing basketball. He enjoys playing his PlayStation and learning about history.

“Jayden has taught me patience and the true meaning of love. His entrance into this world changed me for the better, as that’s when I realized that someone else was dependent on me,” said Lamb.

Kason, her youngest son, is only a year old and loves banging on the pots and pans and talking on his play telephone. Lamb describes him as her “miracle baby” since he was born premature, only weighing four pounds.

“His presence strengthened my faith,” she said. “He has also taught Jayden to be more responsible and caring. The bond they have is amazing.”

For the past 10 years, the family had been moving from apartment to apartment almost every year. Yearly rent increases pushed them into some not so ideal spaces.

“In order to keep rent affordable, I had to find different move-in specials yearly.”

Constant moving was challenging for the small family because that meant her son had to adjust to a different area and find new friends. Sometimes the apartment communities were not safe, which stopped Jayden from playing outside.

When Lamb was accepted into the Habitat program, she felt that God had finally answered her prayers. She quickly realized how owning a home is a major responsibility.

“Working on the build sites is exciting,” said Lamb. “It makes you more appreciative of the home that you will receive because you put so much work into it.”

Her family will now have a safe and stable home to make a lifetime of memories in.

“There will not be any more moving, and my kids will be able to make lifelong friends in their neighborhood,” she said.

Councilwoman Deborah Figgs-Sanders helped welcomed the Lamb family to the neighborhood.

“We have come through a tumultuous time here in 2020, but when we have homeowners that are now sharing the wonderful gift of homeownership, we cannot be more happier, we can’t be more grateful,” she said.

Pinellas County Schools donated the land the Lamb’s new home sits atop. When Habitat received the property from the school board, they made them a promise.

“Not only are we going to build an affordable home on this lot, we are also going to build it for an employee of the school system,” said Sutton.

Because of the pandemic, Lamb was unable to work on her own home, so this Monday was the first time she saw the inside of her new home.

Both the Harrell and Lamb families worked hard to qualify for a Habitat home, completed the mandatory sweat equity hours and the financial literacy courses. Both families are now in a position to build wealth and take part in the American dream.

For more information on the Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County program, please visit habitatpwp.org.

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