Home for the Holidays

Home for the Holidays

>Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia welcomes Don Thompson and family to their new home in Fairfax.

For the Thompson family in Fairfax, this will be an especially happy Thanksgiving.

On Saturday morning, Nov. 19, Don Thompson and his two children, Katherine and Brandon, received the keys to their new home, courtesy of "sweat equity" and Habitat for Humanity.

The two-story home on Topaz Street in Fairfax, part of the Briarwood Trace neighborhood, is the 50th house built by Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, said Steve Greene, director of volunteers with Habitat for Humanity.

"We are so grateful for how far we've come," Greene said to the nearly 50 volunteers and county officials gathered to welcome the Thompsons to their home. "We're not done yet. We are committed to creating affordable housing in Northern Virginia."

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) said the house at 9222 Topaz St. was part of a neighborhood initiative to create single family detached affordable housing units in Briarwood Trace, her own neighborhood.

"This project started when I was a planning commissioner," she said. When a developer came in and discussed the redevelopment of the neighborhood, the residents asked for this type of project, which has resulted in two other Habitat homes and one more currently being renovated across the street from the Thompson home.

"This is the fruition of what we had planned," Smyth said. "This is a perfect example of how a neighborhood, developer and the county can work together for something really great in a community."

RENEWING HIS PLEDGE to make affordable housing a priority, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald Connolly (D-At large) reminded the volunteers that "one penny on the tax rate has been committed to affordable housing, which should bring in $20 million each year that can be leveraged to build new homes, secure home loans and provide funding to retain up to 1,000 affordable housing units we may have lost."

For Don Thompson, the journey to becoming a homeowner started about a year and a half ago, when someone from the county invited him to a conference about Habitat for Humanity.

"I've always known about Habitat, so I went to this seminar and put in an application," he said. "To my surprise, I got a call a few months later."

In the meantime, Thompson and his children have worked with Habitat for Humanity on Homes 48 and 49, as they are called, also within Briarwood Trace.

"This is an amazing process," Thompson said. "I know where every nail, every bolt, every screw is and I know how to fix it. I got to see my house being built from the ground up. I've gained a tremendous amount of skill that I'll use until I leave this earth."

He was especially grateful to Richard Semmler, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, who gave $100,000 toward the construction of his home. Semmler went to college on scholarships and made a vow to give away $1 million to charitable organizations before he retires.

Semmler is organizing a trip to Mississippi and New Orleans to help rebuild homes there with Habitat, and Thompson said he plans to go with him to help out.

"It felt weird to me to accept this home knowing so many people are still devastated from Katrina," Thompson said. "I might not be able to give money to help out, but I can give my work."

In addition, he is working with Semmler to establish the Katherine and Brandon Fund, which will raise money for Habitat for Humanity homes to be built around the world, in honor of his children.

"The homes that will be built from this fund will be called Katherine and Brandon Homes and will be built for people who lose their homes through natural disasters," he said. "I want to work with Habitat to bring homes to people that need help other than myself."

FOR SEMMLER, it was the third home for which he'd been the primary financial sponsor, and he's already making the same commitment for house number 100.

"It's a wonderful moment to see the family ready to move into their home," Semmler said, taking a break between radio appearances.

With the exception of two recent days he spent working with Habitat for Humanity and its 50 homes in a week building blitz on the National Mall for Hurricane Katrina victims, Semmler had been at the Thompson house every work day, swinging hammers side by side with Thompson and other volunteers.

"It's not just about the money, it's a matter of providing time and service to these organizations that's important," Semmler said. "These organizations need the money to do their good work but they also need people to help them complete their missions."

Habitat for Humanity plans to build another 50 homes within 10 years, Semmler said, and has already developed a plan to make that happen.

"Our biggest hurdle in Northern Virginia is land," said Greene. "The cost of land makes it difficult to do the work we need to do, but we've been lucky to have great sponsors and partnerships."

Families like the Thompsons are not simply given a new home for free, Greene explained, but are required to put in "sweat equity," meaning they have to help build their homes from the ground up in addition to making mortgage payments and living in their home for a designated number of years before it can be sold.

"This is a day to celebrate our accomplishments but also to look ahead to our opportunities and challenges we'll be facing," Greene said. "I really believe our best years are ahead of us. We're dedicated to meeting the affordable housing needs in Northern Virginia, but we're just getting started."