Building community

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A family builds a new life and a new home with help from Habitat for Humanity and Kiwanis.

Story by Curtis Billue | Photos by Ilene Perlman and Greg Dolan

Home is where the heart is, especially when you put your heart into building that home from scratch. Board by board, wall after wall, the house that Julia and Juan Boria built was constructed with the help of Habitat for Humanity, a global nonprofit housing organization that builds affordable housing, and the kindness of strangers.

But it wasn’t an easy road to find their own piece of paradise in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Julia had journeyed a long way from her origins in Puerto Rico, where as a victim of domestic violence she escaped an abusive husband. With the help of a relative, Julia and her three children left Puerto Rico and found their way to New England. 

She eventually met Juan Boria. They got married, moved into an apartment and expanded their family to seven. After a host of transitional shelters and temporary housing, and thanks to Habitat for Humanity of the North Shore, they are now proud homeowners.  

“I would have never thought that (would happen),” Julia says. “Despite going through some very difficult moments in my life, I’m very grateful.”

At one point they were living in a host house while transitioning to an apartment. Space was limited with only a few rooms. 

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“The kids didn’t have their own personal space and environment they could personalize,” she says. “Now they can invite their friends to come over and play cards, eat together and watch movies in the living room.”

And then there are the bathrooms. The family used to share a small bathroom. But now there are two large ones.

“The bathrooms are great, a beautiful gift from the Lord,” she says. 

With the new location also came new opportunities. Her kids received fresh starts at school. They were engaged and earned better grades, and one played football. One of her daughters says she loves the neighborhood and backyard, but she loves what’s across the street even more: Cherry Farm Creamery, her favorite ice cream store.

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Perhaps the “cherry on top” is the backyard, complete with a sound-barrier fence — a high fence that also has no gaps between the boards. This is good news for the Borias, because their 4-year-old son with autism finally has a safe place to play. 

For a child with autism, sights and sounds sometimes can feel overwhelming, causing stress and anxiety. A sound-barrier fence blocks road sounds, reduces sensory overload and keeps him from wandering away.

“Thanks to the fence he can run freely in the backyard,” Julia says, “and we’re not concerned that he might get into the street.”

The backyard also offers the perfect place for the family to play with their dog, who seemed depressed before they moved into their new home.

“It might sound absurd, but that was the case,” Julia says. “Our dog was sleeping all day, never moving. Now, as soon as I open the door, she runs free and happy. Her whole life has changed as well.”

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400 hours
Habitat for Humanity requires that applicants must put in 400 hours of “sweat equity,” meaning the owners invest their own time and work in the building process. According to Habitat’s website, sweat equity is “not a form of payment, but an opportunity to work alongside volunteers who give their time to bring to life a family’s dream of owning a home.” 

When Julia realized they had been chosen to receive the house, she was excited and nervous at the same time. She’s a mother dedicated to her children with no experience in building a house, and 400 hours seemed insurmountable. 

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“They were saying it takes all those hours of people working on the house, and I was concerned,” she says. And yet she says people told her, “Do not worry. Do not worry. You will see.”

When she thinks about it, her voice begins to tremble.

“When all the volunteers came together and I saw all those people working, I started to cry. I couldn’t believe it.”

The tears of surprise and gratitude ran down her cheek as day after day volunteers came to help. 

“How can people get motivated, so motivated to come out for others and do something so beautiful?” asks Julia.

One of those groups over the course of the build was Kiwanis.

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Ready to serve
When Kiwanis New England and Bermuda District Divisions 9 and 12 held a joint governor’s visit, instead of a traditional sit-down dinner, 45 Kiwanis members from 18 clubs came together to help with the Boria home. They moved piles of dirt, landscaped, painted, cleaned, attached house siding, worked on the shed and built up the indispensable backyard fence.

“For several Kiwanis members, this was their first Habitat experience,” says former lieutenant governor Gayla Bartlett, organizer of the event. “And they walked away ready to build again.”

The Kiwanis Club of Danvers also raised US$1,100 for the local Habitat for Humanity organization.

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“Working together and seeing our impact is so important,” says Immediate Past Governor Elyse Denorfia. “A project like this speaks to our Kiwanis mission, how we can impact children and make the world a better place.

“It’s nice to give back to the family working so hard with us. They were so kind, and the husband was very strong doing the heavy lifting.” 

The whole family helped where they could. 

“I had never laid floor in my life,” says Julia. “I worked on anything that had to do with wood, windows and flooring. We learned to do a little bit of everything everywhere.

“When you experience it, it has more value. I learned to be more patient, work in a group and be more appreciative of other people as well as what I received.”

Don Preston, executive director at Habitat for Humanity of the North Shore, Greater Boston Area, speaks glowingly of the Boria family.

“They are hard workers and a great family,” he says. In fact, Juan Boria has expressed interest in continuing to volunteer on other Habitat for Humanity housing builds around the Danvers area. 

Preston also puts the Habitat program in perspective.

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“It really helps two families,” he explains. “A family becomes new homeowners and frees up a spot for another family in need of transitional or subsidized housing.” 

Julia Boria met many volunteers and doesn’t recall which were Kiwanians and which were not. But she has a message to them all.

“I had never seen them before and I don’t remember their names, but I value them as human beings, every single one of them,” she says. 

“When you live certain experiences, you really appreciate and understand better. Reminds me of a proverb: strength in unity. Together we can do it, make a big difference when everyone joins.

“My way of showing appreciation for what you did for us, for the effort your hands and time made, knowing what it took, will be taking good care of this house and respecting it.

“This world would fall apart without people like you,” Julia says. “Thank you. Thank you.”


This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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