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Honey, We’re Home – Habitat soothes a family’s struggles

By JANE MADDEN WELCH, St. Petersburg Times
Published: June 13, 2005

At 5:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, Victoria Rutledge picked up her husband, Darren, from the graveyard shift at a Seminole McDonald’s. Then they drove to a house in Tarpon Springs where they scrubbed floors, swept sawdust and spread mulch for the next eight hours.

They were happy to do it.

The house they were cleaning became theirs this month when Pinellas Habitat for Humanity handed them the keys.

The Rutledges are the 123rd family in Pinellas to get a new home from the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit ecumenical housing organization.

“We’ve been serving Pinellas County since 1985,” said Bart Cobb, development director. “We finished 12 houses this fiscal year and plan 13 for next year.”

He said he sees the day when they will be able to build 25 homes in a year, and Habitat has acquired 39 additional parcels in North Pinellas.

The Rutledges’ new blue and white, three bedroom, two bathroom home is at 612 S Grosse Ave. The land was donated by the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority and is next to a Habitat house built in 1999.

“The city of Tarpon Springs feels committed to Habitat, we will continue to look for opportunities to partner with them in the future,” Tarpon Springs City Commissioner and Vice Mayor David Archie told nearly 60 people who gathered at the 1,200-square-foot home for a ceremony June 4.

Victoria and Darren Rutledge, both 42, first heard about Pinellas Habitat for Humanity from Victoria’s mother, Lonnie Boline of Palm Harbor, two years ago. At that time they had moved out of an apartment complex in Seminole they suspect made the family sick because of toxic mold.

After moving into the apartment in 1999, family members began suffering from headaches, nosebleeds and pain in their joints. It was worst for the Rutledges’ daughter, Danielle, then 5.

“I thought we were sick with this bad flu,” Victoria Rutledge said. “But then Danielle began walking like a little old lady, having trouble climbing stairs.”

Mrs. Rutledge left her job working in the Walgreen’s pharmacy in Madeira Beach, partly because she was having headaches and trouble concentrating, but mostly to take care of Danielle. Mother and daughter visited many doctors. Victoria was tested for bursitis, multiple sclerosis and a brain tumor. Danielle saw a pediatrician, neurologist and rheumatologist.

“It was spooky, no doctor had any clue,” Mrs. Rutledge said. Then they went to an allergist. He suggested they get their apartment tested for mold. An air quality control inspector came out and found toxic mold behind the walls due to roof damage that wasn’t repaired, she said.

The Rutledges moved to a condo in Pinellas Park.

“Once we moved out, we started getting better,” she said.

That’s when they decided to apply for a house through Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s not something Darren and I would normally do,” Mrs. Rutledge said. “We’re not on any government assistance. We carry our own insurance, but still got behind on medical bills. It’s been a struggle.”

Applicants to Habitat must live or work in Pinellas County for a year before applying, live in substandard housing, contribute 400 to 500 hours of “sweat equity” by working on Habitat homes, their own or someone else’s. They need to clear up any credit issues so they can be approved for a mortgage, which is provided with no interest.

“It’s a long process to get a family approved,” said Bob Garrelts, a member of Pinellas Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors and the Rutledges’ sponsor. “But it’s been a very rewarding project.”

It takes about 40 work days to build a house, Cobb said. Volunteers help with almost every aspect of the construction process, except what needs to be done by licensed professionals. Romano’s Macaroni Grill sponsored the Rutledge house and St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Tarpon Springs was instrumental in getting the family approved.

The Rutledges’ interest-free mortgage payment will be $518 a month, about $200 less than their current rent. They are waiting for a home inspection, appliance deliveries and homeowner’s insurance before moving in, which they expect to do before the end of the month.

Danielle, now 11, will be in the sixth grade at Tarpon Springs Middle School. Her health has improved dramatically since leaving the apartment. She recently learned to roller skate, something she couldn’t attempt several years ago. She likes to play basketball, read and ride her bike. She’s excited about the prospect of a new house.

“I can’t wait to paint my room in my own colors, purple and pink,” she said.

The Rutledges’ son, Ryan Lamm, 22, transferred from the Seminole Wal-Mart, where he was an automotive manager, to the Palm Harbor Wal- Mart. He said he’s happy for the stability the new house will provide for his sister and parents.

Mrs. Rutledge said it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“I get jittery and the words don’t come out right,” she told Habitat volunteers, relatives and new neighbors who gathered at the house June 4. “This place has been a home from day one because of all the love from the volunteers and everyone at Habitat.”

Danielle Rutledge, 11, reads in the living room of her new home in Tarpon Springs, built by Pinellas Habitat for Humanity. The bookshelf was built and stocked by the Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf in Clearwater. Danielle is excited about the prospect of a new house. “I can’t wait to paint my room in my own colors, purple and pink,” she said.

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