Even in the sweltering Sunday morning heat, a cool breeze blew through the eight open windows of the living room at No. 4 Adele Gade, rustling the trees in the garden and fanning the sweaty brows of the small group of residents gathered outside.
"You should be here in the evening — the wind just sweeps right through," said Celecia Hernandez, the new owner of the house, which was donated to Habitat for Humanity V.I. a few years ago by Cecile deJongh as a tribute to her grandmother Adele Louise Galiber. The house was always filled with joyful memories, with love and music, and the time had finally come to turn the keys over to a new family that could bring the same kind of happiness back to its grounds, deJongh said at the official dedication ceremony Sunday.
"This day couldn’t come soon enough," she added. It was hoped that the house would be given to a single mother, "just like my grandmother was," deJongh said.
Habitat broke ground on their first project in November 2007. Back then, the house was in ruins. But years of hard work transformed the property, which has been painted a cheerful yellow and surrounded on the outside with pots of blossoming flowers. Its concrete walls are sturdy, carpet has been laid in the bedrooms and in the garden, branches laden with lavender flowers curl over a wooden sign that says "Celecia’s Garden."
"This house, the work, the love, the concern that made it, reflects what we have to do as a people to rebuild our V.I. community and to return this great territory back to our children and to their future," Habitat V.I. President Tom Bolt said Sunday. Given the amount of abandoned homes and the number of people living in streets throughout the territory, it’s "unconscionable" for the community not to want to do more, he added.
In this case, several sets of hands helped to rebuild the house at No. 4 Adele Gade. Local contractors spent years finishing work on the actual building, while many volunteers from on and off-island cleaned up the yard, hauled trash and trucked in everything from wood to light fixtures. And the donations came pouring in. Under the creative eye of Jane Brown, for example, the downstairs garden incorporated plants donated by various residents and a couple local nurseries, including a bright red desert rose that Hernandez said she can’t wait to put into the ground.
"When I first asked Ms. Hernandez what she wanted us to put in, she said, ‘I want a garden full of food and drink,’" Brown said, adding that everything from eggplant to parsley was sitting on site. With four of her seven children (Sharifa Hodge, Shaca Hodge, Alfredo Hodge IV and Benito Creque) living in the house — and two grandchildren (Skye and Ktanya) coming in and out — it’s going to make life a lot easier not having to run down the street for fresh ingredients, Hernandez said later.
"All I have to do is go into the yard," she added, after chatting a bit with deJongh’s brother Marcel Galiber about irrigation techniques. "I’m going to put so much work into getting everything planted and maintaining it."
Hernandez has also been involved in the project from the beginning, putting in the 250 to 300 hours of "sweat equity" Habitat requires from its partner families. Along with sewing curtains and helping to feed volunteers, Hernandez said she helped to paint and clean wherever she could, bringing her sweat equity hours up to 595 — and counting.
Laying her head on a front window after the ceremony — where she thanked each contractor, Habitat official and, of course, deJongh — Hernandez looked up, smiled and pointed to the aqua waters of the harbor. The view, she said is also one of her favorite features.
"I can see the seaplane coming in every day," she said.
The dedication blessing was given Sunday by Rev. Jeffrey A. Neevel, of the St. Thomas Reformed Church, who after listening to all the speeches, described the rebuilding of the house as "nothing short of a miracle."
"I’m going to leave this place today and tell everybody what I’ve seen here — tell them exactly what people can do when they decide to come together and give," he said.
"This is a great day for the Virgin Islands," Bolt said. "And I hope that when people pass this way, when people bear witness to this home, they will draw renewed strength and pride and ask themselves: ‘What kind I do to make more of these good things happen in our Virgin Islands?’."