By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — “I saw this neighborhood in its better days, and I saw it go down,” recalled Sandra Cochran, life- long resident of the Columbia community known as Arthurtown.
Unable to stop the tide that was turning their quiet neighborhood into a place of fear and crime, residents felt helpless, until South Carolina Habitat for Humanity organized a rescue.
“With the help of Habitat and local authorities, we have taken back our community,” said Cochran, who is the president of the Arthurtown Homeowners Association.
Midland Catholics have had an important role in the transformation of Arthurtown. “We are thankful for the strong support base provided by St. Peter, St. Joseph and the other Catholic churches in the area,” said Winford Thompson, interim executive director of Habitat, who has come to rely on the large number of Catholic volunteers and their generous contributions.
Habitat for Humanity is an international, Christian and ecumenical housing ministry that provides homes for people who otherwise could not afford them. It was founded by Millard Fuller in 1968. Fuller, a self-made millionaire, suffered some personal setbacks which made him reevaluate his life. In Georgia, he began his new life of service and started building homes for low income families. Today, his organization has blossomed into a ministry that reaches out to the poor in 47 countries. The philosophy of the organization can be summed up by Fuller’s own words, “My responsibility is to use what God has given me to help his people in need.”
For the last three years, Alan Schirtzinger, a member of St. Peter Church has had the job of coordinating the Catholic effort for Habitat’s Blitz Build in Columbia. The blitz, which is in its fifth year, is a week-long event where several homes are built at once. From Sept. 11-18, Habitat added eight more homes in Arthurtown and were not deterred by Hurricane Floyd which threatened South Carolina that week. Despite this distraction, Schirtzinger working with coordinators of other denominations, finished their house ahead of schedule. On Wednesday, Habitat canceled a day of work because of the hurricane. Schirtzinger took this opportunity to secure vinyl siding on existing homes with fellow parishioner Howard Buchanan. “I just knew it had to be done,” he said.
This year’s rushed deadline seemed to bring out the best in Schirtzinger, who was given only three weeks to recruit volunteers. He was able to put together the largest number of people since he has been coordinator. “It seemed as though God provided just the right number of people with the right skills,” said Schirtzinger, who looks forward to the next blitz where he will have more time to plan.
“With Habitat you are seeing the people you are helping. These families are doing their best and without Habitat, they would never be able to own a home,” he said, explaining how the potential homeowners go to classes and are also required to put a certain number of hours into its building.
Part of Schirtzinger’s volunteer force was Dr. Bill Neglia from St. Peter, a radiation oncologist who has helped with the blitz for three years. “In my field I deal with many people less fortunate, and I often must wait five to 10 years before I know if I have helped them. With Habitat, you can see immediate results,” said Neglia.
Ron Calcaterra of St. John Neumann is also a veteran volunteer. He was part of the first blitz five years ago, and his commitment to the work drove him into getting his electrician’s license, so he could utilize his skill as an electrician.
For Deirdre Brou, the blitz was a new experience. The army captain recently moved to Columbia from Germany and somehow found time to come and help even though she is going to law school. “This is something I have been waiting to do for a long time,” she said, adding that being overseas made her desire to help the community grow stronger.
Another welcomed volunteer this year was contractor Chris Stuyck from St. Peter Church. He was able to take groups of people and instruct them on a task, freeing up the other contractor on site. “Guilt has lead me here this year. I have deadlines, and I am behind, but I made the commitment to myself to build for someone in need,” said Stuyck.
Arthurtown was once known only for its crime, but today it is a community of hope for a better future for its inhabitants and their family. With the help of area churches and businesses, Habitat built a rainbow of happy homeowners, who have beaten the odds in Arthurtown. Everyone is welcome to attend the dedication ceremony on Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. in Arthurtown, when the new homeowners will receive their house key.
If interested in helping with future projects or to make a contribution, contact Habitat at (803) 252-3570.