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The House That Built Me

Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity volunteers work together to raise a wall at one of the
‘Ele‘ele Iluna subdivision project lots. PHOTO COURTESY KAUA‘I HABITAT FOR HUMANITY

After helping build her
own home with Kaua‘i
Habitat for Humanity,
Leona Sa McDermott
can now easily find her
way around a housing
construction site.

Leona Sa McDermott’s story is one of strength and perseverance. She patiently waited decades to be granted an affordable home on Kauaʻi, and despite many serious setbacks along the way, never gave up. Today, she happily resides in a home she helped construct with her husband, Robert; their son, Kaimana; and Kauaʻi Habitat for Humanity volunteers.

“It still feels like i’s a dream,” says McDermott of her state Department of Hawaiian Homelands property in Anahola, which was made possible through a partnership with KHH.

Her family recently moved into the newly constructed home that they’d been building since 2013, and as part of its stipulations, KHH required that McDermott and her family contribute around 500-700 hours of “sweat equity” in lieu of a down payment.

Now, besides volunteering as KHH’s board secretary, McDermott can easily find her way around any KHH housing construction site.

“I truly appreciate the work that every construction person does,” she says.

She also jokes that because she helped create her own home, she can’t complain if her baseboards are crooked.

“Because I’m the one that made them that way,” Mc-Dermott says with a laugh.

She cracks a smile so often when she speaks that it’s hard to believe she’s been through such challenging times. Since 1989, her family has endured many struggles while waiting for a DH Milani Pimental (left) and Leona Sa McDermott at a Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity housing site in Anahola. HL home. Her husband, a painter and laborer, received a cancer diagnosis and battled with the disease for two years (he’s now in remission). At the same time, McDermott was also responsible for raising a son with cognitive disabilities.

And the story doesn’t end there

When they finally received news in 2009 that they were selected for a home in the Piʻilani Mai Ke Kai subdivision in Anahola, McDermott suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with a brain defect (Chiari malformation type 1).

She lost her job and could no longer acquire the loan she needed for the home and had to let it go. Mounting health care bills, her son’s massive seizure and other financial difficulties left the family in a tough predicament.

Finally, in 2012, another lot from DHHL became available through a partnership with KHH. Again, she was denied a loan due to her family’s lack of income. But, McDermott was determined not to let this one slip by. She not only fought for her right to receive a disability settlement from federal courts, but she was also diligent in proving that her family needed and deserved the home. A few months later, they were granted a loan for a lot in Anahola, which they now call home.

People like McDermott are the reason why Milani Pimental, KHH’s deputy director, has continued to work for the organization.

“This is, I think, one of the best gigs you can get,” says Pimental, who has been with KHH for the past seven years. “You go into work, do a hard day’s work and come home and feel good about what you’ve done. Not many jobs are like that.”

This year marks a milestone for KHH, as it’s the 25th anniversary of the establishment on the island.

“We were born out of the rubble that was ‘Iniki,” says Pimental.

In 1992, Habitat for Humanity International in Georgia collected $500,000 in donations from strangers across the Mainland, but had no affiliate on Kauaʻi to provide it to. A Georgia staff member was sent to the island and connected with LaFrance Kapaka-Arboleda, who subsequently founded KHH. Board members were secured and construction of the first KHH home on Kauaʻi commenced shortly thereafter.

By 2009, KHH had built its 100th home, and that number continues to rise. Besides constructing homes in Anahola with DHHL, KHH’s current endeavor is the ʻEleʻele Iluna subdivision project, which includes a total of 107 affordable two-, three- and four-bedroom homes. And this year, rather than maintain its current pace of about 10 homes a year, KHH has ramped up its efforts, based on persistent need, to 30 homes a year.

“We don’t see our housing situation improving overnight,” says Pimental.”We’re here to provide that opportunity.”

As of May, the median price for a single-family home on Kaua‘i was $650,000, according to reports issued by Kaua‘i Board of Realtors. In order to qualify for a KHH home, applicants must earn between 30 and 80 percent of the median income on Kaua‘i, or between $28,300 and $68,250 for a household of four. To put the need into perspective, KHH has a mailing list of 2,500 families seeking permanent homes, and that number doesn’t include multiple families living under one roof.

The need is so great, in fact, that McDermott admits she had almost given up on the idea of ever owning her own home on the island many years ago, which is why she was so diligent in her efforts with DHHL and KHH. Her story of persistence is one Pimental likes to share with others.

“It’s the ultimate story of patience, perseverance and believing you can do it,” she says.

McDermott still gets teary-eyed when she talks about her trials and tribulations, and now expresses her gratitude for the opportunity by handing keys over to new KHH homeowners.

“I’ve been there in their shoes and know how that moment feels when they open their door to their new home” she says.

“To this day, I still pinch myself. There are no words.”

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