Unity Build Homeowner Nicole Pujol

“I wanted my kids to have a good strong foundation,” she said. “To have something to say, ‘this is mine.’ And I wanted to work for something where I could say, this is mine. I don’t have to answer to you, or you, or anything. If there’s anything going on I’ll be able to fix it. Thanks to the sweat equity I’ve done, I learned a lot of little tricks. So yeah, I wanted to give them something. It’ll be something that can help them start off.”

Nicole Pujol’s two children are excited for their new home. Her daughter has started high school at Ben Franklin this year; her son is only two years old. She joined Habitat’s homeownership program to give them a place that is theirs. The lot she has chosen for her home is next door to Monica Grandpre’s home, and it will be the site of NOAHH’s 2017 Unity Build, which will bring together congregations from around New Orleans to build a home in 13 days. The home will mean big changes for her family. For her daughter, it means finally getting to decorate her room.

“My daughter’s very excited,” she said. “She says, ‘I want rose gold here. Can you have them please just not paint my room purple? I’m sick of purple!’ Her room right now is purple. ‘I want a mint green color.’ I told her it’ll probably come white and then we can paint it whatever she wants.”

For her son, it means a new yard to play in.

“My son loves being outside, but the neighborhood we stay in I don’t let him outside,” she said. “We’ll go on the porch briefly, but that’s it. When we go to my mom’s–she stays in Gentilly–we’ll play outside and in the park. As far as our house, we don’t do it. So we’re looking forward to having a big yard for them to run around. I’m sure my son is gonna want one of those little swing sets with the slide, so I’ll probably have to look into one of those.”

Her current home is the one her parents rented before they bought their own home in Gentilly. The neighborhood Nicole lives in now has changed over the years.

“As far as the neighborhood itself, I used to live there before Katrina, when I was little, way before Katrina,” she said. “It was a nice neighborhood and everything, but the violence–which is pretty much everywhere in New Orleans right now; you can’t get away from it no matter what neighborhood you’re in–can be a problem. I stay across the street from a bar, so that’s a big no-no. There’s always no parking, then there’s always the loud altercations outside. I don’t want my kids to grow up around that all day. I figured this is a good start, to move out, branch out, have our own little space so we don’t have to be cluttered into the mix of everything else.”

She looks forward to moving to her new home, where there’s less crime. She credits this to the number of homeowners in the area.

“I know that little area is mainly homeowners,” she said. “And I have a cousin right across the street. If I stand where my porch will be, we can wave at each other. It’s real nice. You know what you’re getting [with homeowners].”

Like most of NOAHH’s homeowners, Nicole was born and raised in New Orleans; the only significant time she lived outside the city was after Hurricane Katrina.

“We actually left right before because of my mom,” she said. “My dad wanted to wait it out. My mom told him, ‘No, Gary. It’s just getting too close for comfort, so we just gonna go.’ So of course to make her happy, he agreed to go. So we packed up—not everything. She took her pictures, so that was a good thing. Like our baby photo albums, her wedding book. And of course we had clothes and stuff that we left behind and all kinds of other stuff. But as far as the pictures, that was one of her main things she wanted to save, and good thing she took it because the house was pretty much destroyed when we got back. Me and my dad came back. My mom couldn’t come back because she had little breathing issues and whatnot, but me and my dad came back and the house. It was just totally messed up, like from top to bottom. All the new clothes I had just bought for my daughter–she was 2 at the time–were gone. I had just bought her new clothes for the summer and all kinds of stuff. Just completely destroyed. We had stuff in the closets. Like I had old dresses from my sister that we wanted to pass down to my daughter and it was just messed up.”

After she saw what had happened to her home, she decided to stay in Texas for a while.

“We stayed out there [in Texas] for quite a while because I was not coming back to New Orleans. But then I started to miss New Orleans. My daughter, we were both really skeptical about coming back. We thought, ‘we might as well give [coming back] a shot. If we don’t like it we’ll just come back [to Texas]. We stayed.”

Her story will be familiar to many of those volunteering to build her home.

“As a congregation that experienced what it was like to be homeless for a time after Hurricane Katrina, we have felt a call to working with the homeless and with those who have been displaced, which is reflected in many of our outreach efforts,” said the Rev. Rob Courtney, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “To help provide someone with a home that they could call their own and to work with them directly through Habitat is right up our alley.”

For the Unity Build, congregations from around the city will bring together hundreds of volunteers from around the city to help build Nicole’s home. NOAHH has hosted two Unity Builds, one before the storm and one in 2015. This year’s will be the biggest Unity Build our affiliate has hosted. Nicole currently attends mass at St. Leo and Corpus Christie, and she is very open and accepting with her faith.

“I’m Catholic,” she said. “When I was in Texas, I was going to a nondenominational church in Texas, and I liked it. Even my daughter, she enjoyed going too. I think [Unity Build] is awesome. My house will be blessed. I’m looking forward to meeting everybody I’m gonna be working with and seeing how that goes. I’m gonna try to come out every day.”

Nicole volunteered on site for the first time during Women Build, where she met her future neighbor Monica and got an idea of what working on a blitz build would be like.

“I’m looking forward to seeing them put the frame up,” she said. “Just seeing it all come together from beginning to end. We drove around it recently to go check the area out, and I saw the bottom of the structure, the foundation, was already put up. My daughter said, ‘Mom, wait. Is that where our house it gonna be or is that next to it?’ I told her, ‘This is the house.’ So she was so excited.”

Though right now, the house is only in the early stages of preparation for the build, she’s already looking forward to making it her own. As part of the program, she has chosen her house colors, and the floor plan, which is determined by lot size and other factors, has one of the features she was hoping for.

“I picked the grey with the coral-looking door,” she said. “And then if not that one, it was the peach-looking color with the red door, I believe. I thought those were cute. It stood out to me the most. My mom was trying to get me to do green. My sister wanted me to do blue. I’m sick of blue houses. The houses we stayed in since I was little were all blue, so I’m trying to get away from that. As far as the model, I think [my case manager] said I was gonna get the one with the long porch, so I was pretty excited about that. I think that one was so cute. I’m looking forward to that. Hopefully we can put a little swing up there or something.”

Nicole has finished about a third of her sweat equity hours and is excited to work on her own home soon. She recently started working on other partner families’ homes, and the future homeowners she has met have inspired her.

“I think it’s good to see someone in a similar situation to yourself, just trying to do better for themselves,” she said. “Like the lady I spoke with on a build I was working on recently. She was saying she had two daughters, and they wanted their own rooms. She was sick of the neighborhoods she was in and wanted something of her own as well. It was good to see everything coming together. Seeing that this is hers, and she’s working towards it. And then I’m up next. The whole experience has been really eye-opening. Seeing other families going through and getting their houses and achieving their goals—that was a main goal of everyone of everyone I talked to, and giving their kids something to look forward to as well. That’s like the same thing for myself. I just want to give them something that we can call a home for ourselves.”