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Brought Here By Katrina

Essence Magazine Joins Habitat for Humanity to Help People Find Homes
Story Courtesy of The Houston Chronicle
By David Ellison

New Orleans native Cathy Lewis believes that Hurricane Katrina, which sent her packing to Houston, has opened a door for her.

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In early fall, she and her daughter, Jamara Keller, 16, will move into their three-bedroom house that's now under construction by Chevrolet and Essence magazine employees participating in the Houston Habitat for Humanity project in the 11700 block of Greenmesa in northeast Houston.

"I thank God for everything that he's done," Lewis said Monday in front of the construction site. "It's truly a blessing, despite all of what we went through with Katrina. I thank God for Katrina because it opened a door for me. I thank God for a home that I have been praying for."

Lewis, who cares for elderly people, moved to Houston last year and will buy the house at cost with a zero-interest loan. A frame similar to the one on Lewis' house will be on display at the Chevrolet booth at the Essence Music Festival at Reliant Park in July to inform people about Habitat.

In its 12th year, the festival is traditionally held in New Orleans over Independence Day weekend. It made a temporary move to Houston because of rebuilding efforts in Louisiana. Monday's announcement of the house was the first major publicity event associated with the festival.

"So this is a direct response to the tragedy," said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence. "And it is a great way to celebrate the music festival here in Houston. There's no better place to do it than in Houston. Houston warmly accepted scores of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. So we followed thousands."

Ebanks said Chevrolet is one of the festival's sponsors.

The festival will include three days of musical entertainment from stars such as Mary J. Blige, Yolanda Adams, Earth, Wind & Fire, New Edition, Jaheim and Toni Braxton.

The event will include empowerment seminars that are free and open to the public on "Peace is Power" on July 1, "Re-awakening the Spirit" on July 2 and "Standing on Strong Ground" on July 3. The seminars will feature remarks by national black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan, actor Danny Glover, the Rev. Al Sharpton and others.

This year, Ebanks said, the seminars will include for the first time Essence Cares!, an effort to help rescue vulnerable youths and restore the lives of Katrina survivors.

"The Essence music festival has always been known as the original 'party with a purpose,' " Ebanks said. "The fact that the disaster itself is still greatly affecting the lives of so many, we are here. And so this is now a bigger party with a deeper purpose."

That purpose started in earnest Monday in front of Lewis' house, which at that time consisted of a concrete slab and two-by-fours used to frame the walls. Workers in Chevrolet caps and T-shirts were hammering while Lewis and Keller walked through the shell.

"Every nail that you put in anyone's home is definitely appreciated," Lewis said.

Her elation was shared by the workers, who were excited about providing housing for needy families, especially those displaced by Katrina.

"Tell you what, just talking about it right now I have goose bumps," said Vicki Kidd, marketing manager for Chevrolet cars. "Just think where we would be if more companies, more people got involved with Habitat to help these unfortunate victims."

Valerie Boles, Habitat's new business development manager, said the nonprofit organization is building nine other houses on Greenmesa. She said the homes will go to working families who volunteer 300 hours of what Habitat officials call "sweat equity."

"It is truly a blessing to help people who are in need of affordable houses," Boles said. "Despite coming from New Orleans or being a native Houstonian, we are building for families who are in need of affordable housing."

david.ellison@chron.com

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