URBANA – One year ago, Crystal Brown was battling raw sewage that flooded her apartment, ruining most of her worldly possessions.
On Thursday she broke ground on her own home, something she never dreamed of during a tumultuous childhood on the west side of Chicago.
Brown is one of two homeowners building houses this summer on side-by-side lots in Urbana in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County. The official groundbreaking took place in the rain Thursday evening on Beslin Street.
"It's just a blessing to be able to have this come around now," Brown said Thursday.
Brown, 34, now an office support associate at the University of Illinois, grew up in a Chicago housing project. Both of her parents were addicts, and she was in and out of foster homes, attending 11 different middle schools.
She moved to Urbana in 1989, 13 years old and a ward of the state. She lived at Cunningham Children's Home for almost eight years, until she was 21.
Brown has worked hard to better her life. She graduated from Urbana High School in 1994, and later worked for Prairie Center as a homeless case manager, helping clients find clothes, housing and other assistance.
She was named a Hometown Hero and was chosen to meet President Bill Clinton during his January 1998 visit to the UI.
For the past 13 years she's shared a small two-bedroom apartment in southeast Urbana with her daughter, Sierra, now 14. A year ago Wednesday, the sewer backed up, and they had to move out into an even smaller apartment.
"We lost pretty much everything that we had," Brown said. "I'm still living out of boxes."
A friend, Roxanne Grantham, had purchased a Habitat home in 2006 and encouraged Brown to apply. She did, on a "whim," and was approved.
The Browns' apartment is cramped, and the neighborhood isn't the safest, so they're looking forward to their new three-bedroom home. Sierra is excited to have room to invite friends over. Brown's mother is also living with them temporarily as she copes with health issues.
To Brown, the house means stability for her daughter, something she didn't have as a teen.
"At this point it means everything," Brown said. "It means that it'll be mine. It means more space. And it really means something that I can leave to my daughter."
The other homeowner, Kay Bynum, is originally from Baltimore and first heard about Habitat when it was renovating old crack houses in the city. She wasn't interested, fearing the drug trade might return to the neighborhood.
"My main concern was for my daughter's safety, and mine," she said.
She moved to Urbana in 2005, after her older daughter married and relocated here. Her son-in-law kept urging her to consider Habitat, and several of her co-workers at Wal-Mart also applied.
She decided to give it a try, and was approved within four months.
"I was really surprised and shocked that I got one. I felt truly blessed," said Bynum, who now shares a duplex with 13-year-old Tamara.
"I'm trying to set a good example for my daughter,"