Habitat for Humanity

Siedah Smith, second from right, poses with her kids — from left, Jeniyah Henderson, Joell Brown and Jaedah Henderson — in front of the home Habitat for Humanity built for them.

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CHAMPAIGN — The path to home ownership hasn’t been easy for Siedah Smith, but all her hard work is paying off.

The 31-year-old medical assistant worked two jobs and paid off her debt to prepare for a big day today — moving with her three kids into the first home they’ve ever owned.

“This morning, I was crying in my car: Thank you, God, I did it,” she said Tuesday.

Smith was set to move into the 115th home built by Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County, a four-bedroom ranch on West Eureka Street in Champaign. It’s one of just a few homes the group expects to complete this year.

Employed at Frances Nelson Health Center’s behavioral-health facility, Smith grew up in the local community in a blended family of 10 kids. She got her certified-nursing-assistant certificate and went to work right after graduating from Champaign Central High School in 2007.

Her first job out of school was with the former Illini Heritage Nursing Home (now Illini Heritage Rehab & Health), where she was CNA coordinator, then the activity director.

After that, she worked for the former Community Elements in group-home settings.

One of her cousins, a social worker, first encouraged her to apply to become a Habitat homeowner.

“You don’t know if you’re going to qualify unless you try, and your kids need a home. You need a home,” she recalled.

To become financially ready to buy a home, she returned to work at Illini Heritage Rehab & Health and continued her day job at Frances Nelson, she said.

A young mom with three children before she turned 30, Smith said she also found time to home-school her kids while schools were closed this past spring.

Her oldest daughter, Jeniyah Henderson, is 13; her second daughter, Jaedah Henderson, is 10; and her son, Joell Brown, is 4.

Smith said her daughters’ father, Damien Henderson, was her high school sweetheart. They were together for eight years before he was murdered in 2014. A few years later, she also lost a brother to gun violence, she said.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said.

Her kids were very excited about the move to the family’s new home, Smith said.

“As they get more excited, that does something to me emotionally,” she said. “Anybody who knows me knows, if nothing else, I’m a great mom.”

Along with her work and parenting responsibilities, Smith has also been responsible for taking on Habitat’s required 300 hours of sweat equity for new homebuyers, part of which includes working for more than 100 hours on her own home.

Habitat home clients must also make a down payment and demonstrate both a need for affordable housing and an ability to take on an affordable mortgage.

Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County Executive Director Chad Hoffman said work on Smith’s home had already started when the coronavirus pandemic began.

If not for pandemic-related delays, it would have been completed in the fiscal year that ended June 30, he said.

With volunteers in much shorter supply in recent months, Hoffman said he and other Habitat office staff members pitched in on construction.

Habitat typically builds five to six homes a year but expects to build just three in the new fiscal year that began July 1, Hoffman said.

Homes are typically sponsored by businesses and church groups, but two business sponsors dropped out this year, he said.

“That’s been a challenge for us, to secure funding, but individual donations are up,” he said.

Another house, this one on Harvey Street in Urbana, was begun in July with help from a grant through Thrivent, and Hoffman said he hopes churches will come together to continue the sponsorship.

With Habitat’s thrift shop, ReStore, closed for several months and now reopened for just four hours a day, Hoffman said the organization’s biggest need is for donations to help move its mission forward.

He’d also be grateful for prayers.

“I believe in the power of prayer,” he said.

Volunteers are beginning to come back to building projects, and the organization is doing all it can to make building sites safe for everyone, he said.

Not being able to accept as many people into Habitat’s homeownership program this year will matter, Hoffman said. There isn’t enough affordable housing to go around, and rents continue to eat up too much of family incomes, he said.

“Apartment rents, people are spending well over 50 percent of their earnings just to have a decent place to live,” he said.

Helping make Smith’s home build possible was funding through the Yahoo Employee Foundation and the Urbana HOME Consortium, plus volunteer labor, according to Habitat.

Brand-new Habitat houses are typically celebrated with in-person dedication ceremonies with the families moving in, but for safety’s sake amid the pandemic, Smith’s new home will be marked with a half-hour drive-by celebration starting at 5:30 p.m. today.

Smith and her immediate family will be out front and well-wishers are invited to drive by, wave and hold up signs.