WHITLEY CITY — Bessie Joyce Watson was going to have a home for her children.
”I want to give them what they need. I want to make up for my children not having their father,“ she said.
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So Watson did just that: She built her home, a three-bedroom ranch in McCreary County, in a little over a week. Not alone, of course, but with 150 new friends.
Watson received her home through Extreme Build, a program that operates in some of Kentucky's poorest counties to help families in the most dire need to get homes.
”We call it Extreme Build because it's for extreme need,“ said Donna Thrush, director of the McCreary Housing Development Corp., a major sponsor of the program. ”You've got to have quite a story to tell to get in this program.“
And Watson did have quite a story. Her husband went missing in February 2007 — his body was found in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River more than a week later. Since his death, Watson and her two children, Sarah and Jacob, have lived on a widow's pension, which proved insufficient to keep her family afloat.
The program is part of a larger project called the Mountain Hope Project which operates in Southern and Eastern Kentucky. The project helps residents get into middle class homes they wouldn't be able to qualify for on their own. The Watsons will still pay a 33-year mortgage on the home; however, many appliances have been donated and some of the cost waived.
Watson began the journey toward her new house by enrolling in a six-week personal finance class offered by the McCreary Housing Corp. She then began the difficult process of paying off all her debt, another prerequisite for the program. But Watson pinched pennies where she could and eventually was eligible to apply for an Extreme Build home.
Only she didn't get it.
Originally another family was chosen for the home, one of three built by the non-profit each year, but when the other family had complications, Watson got the phone call.
At the home's July 19 dedication, uniformed volunteers from as far as Texas, Indiana and Tennessee were still scurrying around, working hard to finish landscaping, painting and installing appliances. The volunteers worked through the heat for a week straight with Whitley City residents and Watson's family, often laboring dawn to dusk.
Courtney Garland, 16, was on the work site throughout the process. She felt a need to help build the Watson home, not only as their new next-door neighbor, but as a fellow recipient of an Extreme Build home.
”We lived in an apartment, then a trailer park — it was six of us in a tiny three-bedroom trailer,“ Courtney said. ”You take some stuff for granted, like being able to have friends over, the girls having our own bathroom. Just having personal space is something I never experienced until the move.“
Courtney wrote the application's essay portion for her father, Richard, a cook at KFC. She and her five siblings lived with their mother in Cincinnati, but when she died, the children had to unexpectedly move into their father's cramped apartment.
”I love seeing people's faces when they first get the keys,“ she said. ”They just kind of break down.“
After the dedication, site director Stephen Holm was guiding fellow volunteers through the home. Holm, a retired engineer at Ford Motor Co., is involved in the Louisville chapter of Habitat for Humanity and was thrilled to work on the McCreary project.
”I'll tell you why this program's so important: It's not a handout, but a hand up,“ he said, referring to the payment program for the homes. According to Holm, there's nothing free about it.
Thrush conceived the program while watching TV three years ago.
”I was watching that show, Extreme Home Makeover, and decided, hey ... why don't we do that?“
Originally she planned to remodel old homes; however, Thrush's first recipients had such a long list of repairs that the program decided it would make more sense just to build a new home.
After the Watsons' ceremony, Watson and her two children set up to spend their first night in the house.
Their first plan was a late birthday party for Sarah.
”I never thought I'd have a home for my birthday. This is definitely the best present I've ever got,“ she said.