Friday, June 18, 2010

Civic Soapbox Friday: Hattie's Story by Claire Martindale

Hattie Pitts had just reached the part of her story where she would tell the teenagers about her husband going to jail. I knew because I’d heard her tell this tale every week for most of the summer. It was 1983 in the sultry south Georgia town of Americus, where I was six months into a volunteer term with Habitat for Humanity International. I had no construction skills to help Habitat build affordable homes for families like Hattie’s, but I helped in other ways, such as organizing these afternoon chats between future Habitat homeowners and teenage work campers.

All Habitat homeowners had to work sweat equity hours in building their own homes and other projects. To earn some of her hours, Hattie Pitts agreed to meet each week with a new group of mostly white, mostly affluent work campers and tell them what it was like for her growing up black and poor in south Georgia.
Hers was a hard life, and I was astonished with Hattie’s openness in sharing her journey. She told about having to quit school in the third grade to pick cotton and earn a little money. She confessed that her lack of schooling left her with limited skills in reading and writing and made it difficult to get a job as an adult. Her voice could not hide the pain of her constant struggle for steady work.

What surprised me was that Hattie was not an old woman. She was a few years older than me but still under forty, and I couldn’t help thinking how different our lives had been. When I was coming home from school to play with dolls, Hattie was dragging a back-breaking sack through the cotton fields. I went to college and took foreign language courses for an easy credit, while Hattie struggled to hide her illiteracy from potential employers.

I was still single; Hattie was married but not happily. Then her husband was arrested and sent to prison for robbery, and she was left to care for four young children. The only place she could afford to rent was a crumbling house in a bad neighborhood, and friends encouraged her to apply for a Habitat house. She had been approved that spring, and her new home was under construction.

As Hattie neared the end of her story, I waited for the part that I loved best. Hattie described how being involved with Habitat had changed her life. She told about meeting volunteers from all around the United States and even other countries. She described how she was encouraged to try things she would never have tried on her own – things like hammering shingles on her roof or talking to 20 teenagers.

“These past months with Habitat for Humanity,” Hattie Pitts said fervently, “It’s been the best time of my life.”
I found myself comparing my life with Hattie’s again. Since moving to Georgia, I had met volunteers from around the globe. I, too, had been encouraged to try things I never would have dreamed of trying on my own. I had met people with stories that stretched my world.

Yes, Hattie, I silently agreed. It’s been the best time of my life, too.

          --Claire Martindale lives in Bridgewater and volunteers for Central Valley Habitat for Humanity

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