On May 17, 1993 Grace Mitchell closed on her Habitat home in East Stuart, becoming the third Habitat for Humanity of Martin County homeowner. A lifelong East Stuart resident, she was the first person in her family to own her own home. In 2011, Mrs. Mitchell paid off her mortgage, finally owning her home outright. Margot Graff, our executive director, and I went to her home to present her with a bouquet of roses, celebrating her accomplishment. We sat and talked in her living room for about an hour. During that time, Mrs. Mitchell sat in a chair near a window with the curtains pulled tightly shut. Her chair was angled in a way that she would have to crane her neck just to be able to see what a beautiful day it was outside.
Why? We asked.
“Bad things happen in that house next door. There are bad people there and I don’t want them to see me,” she said, seemingly accepting the fact that she was a prisoner in her own living room.
That year marked the second year of our A Brush With Kindness program and the second year we focused that program solely on East Stuart. In 2010, we performed minor rehabs, landscaping and painted 24 homes, thanks to the help of about 700 volunteers. In 2011, we touched 40 homes and three churches with those repairs and paint and attracted about 750 volunteers to the neighborhood. The City of Stuart offered amnesty for the disposal of hazardous materials, there was a gigantic neighborhood cleanup, etc. When the project was finished, there was a community garden and the neighborhood was noticeably beautified.
More importantly, the Chief of Police called about two months later to tell us that calls to 911 from that area had tripled. TRIPLED? He said that was a great sign because, thanks in part to the two A Brush With Kindness events, residents were proud of their neighborhood and engaged enough that they were reporting any suspicious behavior. It was the type of ripple effect we had hoped to see, but weren’t sure would happen because the program was still so new.
One of those calls led to a drug house being seized by the police and, eventually, donated to Habitat for Humanity of Martin County by the City Commission. The duplex was small – less than 900 sq. feet – but its history was well known throughout East Stuart. When we went to demolish it, there were marijuana plants growing through cracks in the foundation.
Between the donation and the demolition, I was in East Stuart shooting a video about our Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and Mrs. Mitchell agreed to be interviewed for the video. I spoke to her on her porch for a few minutes and then casually mentioned that the house next door, the same one she had consciously ignored for several years, had been donated to Habitat for Humanity and, soon, there would be a new home built in its place. Her face lit up with the biggest smile you can imagine (I wish the camera was rolling at that point). She thanked me (I don’t know why) and, when we were done with the video immediately went in and opened her curtains.
Her first question was “Who is going to move in?”. Which is where the story gets even better.
The new partner family – No. 105 overall – moved in January 31, 2014. Her name is Nancy Cleare and the reason she wanted to live in that house, in particular, at 942 Bahama St. is because she grew up in East Stuart, on that street, and this was her chance to own a home in the same place as her family and lifelong friends, including a woman named Grace Mitchell.
The A Brush With Kindness program is now in its sixth year (the annual event is Saturday) and we have performed those repairs on more than 150 homes throughout the county. There are plenty of feel-good stories that have come out of the program, but Mrs. Mitchell and Ms. Cleare have all the elements of what we hope that program will do to more neighborhoods throughout the county.