Habitat helps families hit by Gifford tornado

Habitat helps families hit by Gifford tornado

GIFFORD — Benjamin, Christy and son Jacob Calhoun rode out the Nov. 17 tornado that swept through Gifford in a closet.

It really does sound like a freight train, Benjamin says — "like one is driving right through your living room."

Their house at 114 W. Center St. was destroyed.

Randy and Tracy Westmoreland and family will lose their house in Gifford in a different way. Their landlady told them they'd have to look for another place because she is selling it to her nephew after his house was destroyed.

They have until May 15 to be moved out.

But there's a happy ending for both families. Habitat for Humanity will be building them new homes.

The news was more than welcome for the Calhouns and Westmorelands, who were among those wondering where they'd call home. Once the Westmorelands move out of their rental, they'll be living in a camper at Rolling Hills Campground near Penfield until their new home is built.

"We're extremely excited," Tracy Westmoreland said. "We are very happy that we get to stay in Gifford."

But she said she feels kind of guilty because not all families are as fortunate.

"I feel terrible that we still have a house to live in and our belongings," she said. "I feel guilty because we get to move into this brand new house.

"It's just an overwhelming feeling. I wish everybody would have the same luck and opportunity that we have."

'You can't be mad'

The tornado took an emotional toll on those whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

"You have every emotion," Christy Calhoun said. "You want to be mad at what happened, but you can't be mad. It was out of everyone's control.

"There were a lot of sleepless nights sitting up and worrying what we're going to do next, where are we going to live now, how we're going to get back and forth to work, is Jacob going to have to transfer out of school, what to replace when."

She said they lost about 90 percent of their possessions, including both of their vehicles.

For the first couple of weeks, they lived with her sister in Rantoul. Since the first of December, they've lived at Golfview Village in Rantoul and have replaced their vehicles.

Benjamin is manager of the NAPA auto parts store in west Rantoul, while Christy works in patient accounts at a Carle Hospital office in Urbana.

Jacob was able to remain at Gifford Grade School — a bus transporting him to school and back each day.

"We love Gifford," Christy said.

The Westmorelands are currently living on the northwest side of town — "the first house when you come into Gifford," Tracy said. It's a "nice, big ranch-style house."

Their next home won't be so spacious.

All four of them — including their adopted children, Drew, 13, and Emi, 8, and their dog — will move into the camper in mid-May.

No doubt they're glad the Habitat for Humanity construction is a "blitz build."

Their house, to be built at 206 E. Plumb St., will be up in about a week and a half — from June 2-13 — with the help of lots of donated material and labor.

"It's eight 10-hour days," Tracy said.

And the Westmorelands will be among those helping, as the Calhouns will be on their house build.

"It will be completely finished and ready to move in," Tracy said. "It will be painted and have appliances and everything."

Under Habitat's program, part of their down payment is a required 500 hours of volunteer work, including helping in the community and at the Habitat ReStore in Urbana. The Westmorelands have had 80 hours of volunteer work donated to them.

The house recipients are also required to take classes to learn everything from how to handle money to how to maintain the home.

The turmoil of the tornado and the impending move has been more than unsettling for the Westmorelands' son Drew, who was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder at age 3.

"He is doing much better, but it does affect him, knowing we're having to move," Tracy Westmoreland said. "The instability of renting, he's having a difficult time handling the whole situation."

Helping hands

Both new houses will be located on East Plumb Street on lots that were donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Michelle Stallmeyer, family services manager with Habitat, said six families have applied for home builds in Gifford, with three likely to be approved. The third will be decided on in May. Applications are still being accepted.

"We'll try to help as many people as we can," Stallmeyer said.

The Westmoreland and Calhoun houses will be going up simultaneously. Stallmeyer said the work is primarily voluntary.

"We have partners that are going to build," she said, noting that one is a Baptist church group that will work on the Westmoreland house and the other a group of churches from the Paxton area that will work on the Calhoun house.

In addition to a possible third build in June, there is the possibility of a fourth build in the fall if a family qualifies.

Families that receive a Habitat home must pay $500 plus their sweat equity (volunteer hours) as a downpayment. The volunteer hours must be done before the closing.

Each adult is required to spend 250 volunteer hours, 50 of those on the build. They are also given credit for attending the classes in financial education and working in the Habitat ReStore.

Stallmeyer said the home loans feature lower mortgage payments due to donations and volunteer labor. For instance, the Calhoun project will be funded in part by a $30,000 grant from the Paxton Area Ministerial Association.

Dave Hinton is editor of the Rantoul Press, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit rantoulpress.com.

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