Whitefield Academy becomes Cobb County’s first private school to sponsor a Habitat Home.
By Amy Meadows
Jessica Gill had her work cut out for her. As the new CEO of NW Metro Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, she was searching for a sponsor for a home that needed to be built in 2019. It would be for the family of Nelson and Yaitza Camacho, Puerto Rico natives who, along with their three children, had been displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and were relocated to Mableton by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But this project was going to be different; the Camacho family not only needed a four-bedroom home, but they also needed one that could accommodate their two special-needs children, both of whom live with spina bifida (A rare birth defect in which a baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly.). In fact, because of the home’s requirements, Gill had nearly given up on finding the right sponsor for the build. But in February, she received a call that changed everything.
On the other end of the line was Becky Matherne, a Whitefield Academy alumni parent. She explained to Gill that she had seen an article about her new position with Habitat for Humanity and felt compelled to reach out. At the time, Whitefield was in the process of building a new Lower School facility on its campus, and it encouraged Matherne to think outside of that campaign and identify a way to apply the school’s Christian values beyond the campus itself. “As construction began on a brand new Lower School this summer, Whitefield Academy felt that it would be an important time to reach out within our own community and give back in a big way,” Matherne explained. Allison Duncanson, director of spiritual life and director of diversity for Whitefield Academy, added, “We are building for ourselves, and our desire was to focus on building for someone else as well. We didn’t only want to look at what we need for our own property — we wanted to put the focus on others and celebrate that.”
Gill knew that she had the ideal project for the school and described the Camacho family and their particular needs to Matherne. She said, “It was one of those perfect alignments, when a potential sponsor’s values are so closely aligned with ours.” Matherne felt the same way, and after meeting with Gill, she and a Whitefield Academy development team began reaching out to alumni and current families to launch a fundraising campaign for the home build. The entire process had to move quickly, as the school wanted to coordinate the start of the home’s construction with its annual Great Day of Service, which would take place on August 24. “It was a very organic process,” Duncanson observed. “For Whitefield, our biggest value is our community. Our graduates have a very strong relationship with one another, and this idea was just contagious. It really resonated with our families.” Amazingly, over the summer, the school was able to ensure the full financial commitment needed to build the home for the Camacho family, and construction began as scheduled on the intended Saturday in August. It is the first time a private school in Cobb County has sponsored a Habitat for Humanity home, and the experience has been exceptional.
Every Saturday for nine weeks, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., teams of volunteers from Whitefield Academy gathered to help frame, trim, install, paint and landscape the 1,640-square-foot home, which happens to be located just over a mile away from the school in a neighborhood comprised entirely of Habitat for Humanity homes. The four-bedroom residence is completely ADA compliant, with specially designed features that can accommodate two wheelchairs and all of the needs of the family of five. The parents, Nelson and Yaitza worked alongside the other volunteers. For more than two years prior to the home’s construction, they have resided in a two-bedroom apartment with their children as they waited for an opportunity to move into a new home. “Everyone deserves to have safety and shelter. This is a working family, and they are working as hard as anyone else. We’re not handing them this house. They are working hard to earn this house,” Gill says. “They prayed hard and look what has happened. They have been given this opportunity, this gift, from a school that no one had expected. Against all odds, good things can happen.”
The project has been equally gratifying for everyone at Whitefield Academy. “In a selfie culture, this is a perfect opportunity for our students to be selfless. This project has removed the veil from their eyes. They are seeing the real work and love that goes into serving others, and it is a practical way to walk out our mission,” Duncanson said. “Service is such a core component of our school, and we have had a really good partnership with Habitat. We are so happy to have been able to come alongside them and bring hands and feet to this build.” Matherne notes, “Service is a valuable reminder of the impact that Whitefield Academy can have every day. …This opportunity to build a Habitat House is a powerful testament to who we are at Whitefield Academy.”
In November, Whitefield Academy and Habitat for Humanity will hold a celebration to dedicate the home to the Camacho family. By Christmas, they will be moved and settled in their new residence. And behind the walls, Nelson and Yaitza and their three children will know there is something special just for them. Written on the two-by-fours that comprise the frame of the house are hundreds of signatures and messages from the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Whitefield Academy. Offering prayers and blessings, the students and adults of all ages wanted to share their sentiments for a family they have gotten to know so well, as they worked together to bring this project to fruition.
“This has been such a sweet experience. We are praying for them as a family, and our hearts beat faster thinking that we have been able to help make their house a home,” Duncanson concluded. “They are grateful, and we are grateful to serve them. We don’t feel like we are unique in wanting to help others. Our mission is a living proclamation. Everything we do points back to the Lord, and the Lord had us in mind for this. We are truly grateful and humbled.”
Teachers of the Year
In October, the Cobb Chamber honored two area educators as this year’s top District Teachers of the Year. Barbie Esquijarosa, A.L. Burress Elementary (Marietta City Schools) and Cindy Wadsworth, Kemp Elementary (Cobb County Public School District), were honored in a ceremony at The Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta. The two teachers added their handprints to the Teacher Walk of Honor on the historic Marietta Square, putting their stamp on a 30-year tradition of celebrating teaching excellence.
Esquijarosa teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages for all grades at A.L. Burruss. She is in her 12th year as an educator, and has a deep passion for community service and educating minorities. She is an active member in the Marietta community as an A.L. Burruss Family Facilitator, a Family Group Leader, and Women’s Group Facilitator at the North River Church of Christ.
In addition to being a third-grade teacher at Kemp Elementary, Wadsworth has been a professional learning facilitator for the Cobb County School District, a new teacher mentor, a summer school teacher for Title I students, and a proctor and tutor for home-schooled children in her community. Her life is currently inundated with all things college, as she has a senior at Hillgrove, a sophomore at SCAD, and is finishing her own Specialists’ Degree at University of West Georgia.