New Habitat for Humanity homeowner LaShunda Murphy gets a hug from Habitat’s executive director Jason Haney, while her daughter Nadjae Murphy (right) watches. The Times photo by Amanda Baumann
New Habitat for Humanity homeowner LaShunda Murphy gets a hug from Habitat’s executive director Jason Haney, while her daughter Nadjae Murphy (right) watches. The Times photo by Amanda Baumann
Saturday was a special day in Old Town Noblesville, where neighbors gathered for a block party on Cherry Street to welcome three new families to their new homes.

Tears were shed. Hugs were aplenty. And front-door keys were handed over to first-time homeowners.

"I'm still shocked every time I put the key in the door," said LaShunda Murphy, 37, one of three new homeowners in the Habitat for Humanity of Hamilton County program, celebrating its 25th year.

All are single moms. And all worked hard to get to the point of owning their own home.

Each of the three homes are at different stages. Murphy's home was completed a few weeks ago and the family has already moved in. The Powell family moved in Saturday afternoon. The Vargas family's home is still being finished, and the family will move in before Christmas.

"We all kind of feel like it's a hotel, on vacation. The reality, it kind of hasn't sunk in yet," Murphy said during tours of her home, which was open for neighbors during Saturday's dedication and cookout.

Murphy, who hails from Chicago, moved with her three children, Nadjae, 19; LaScelles, 17; and Canaan, who'll turn 12 on Friday, from the income-based Noble Manor apartments in Noblesville. Three times was charm for Murphy, who was denied twice for the Habitat program. She went back to school, worked on paying off her credit and stayed at her job for a year. "And I tried again and got approved," Murphy said.

She is a full-time preschool teacher in Noblesville, a licensed hair stylist of 20 years, is trained in architectural interior design and is trying to turn her baking hobby into a business.

The second homeowner is Johnquis Powell, who came to the program after her sister had a Habitat home remodel She has three kids, ages 13, 14 and 16.

"I appreciate everything, and I'm very blessed to be able to say, 'I own my first home,'" Powell, 34, said in front of neighbors and friends. She saw her finished home for the first time, just before the dedication on Saturday, also her move-in day.

She moves from rental housing in Noblesville. "It's a dream come true to me," said Powell, who first moved here for a job offer but on the way here, she suffered a broken neck during a car accident and was in physical therapy for a year. Struggling to get a new job and housing, she applied to Habitat, after encouragement from her sister. "They accepted me into the program. It was like a miracle," Powell said. "I'm just thankful. And I feel I am real blessed to be able to get something like this and to be able to show my kids the struggles that I had to go through. But I keep faith that all things are possible."

The third homeowner is Dina Vargas. "When I see the (new) house, I remember my house is my country," said Vargas, 38, whose only request was to have a "green home" because her grandmother had a green-painted house in Guatemala. That's where Vargas was born and raised by her grandparents; her grandfather died this week.

At age 20, she moved with her family to the United States.

"I just want to say, 'Thanks God,' for taking care of me....I never imagined that I would have a house in the United States. This is a big dream for me," Vargas said during her home's dedication. She and her son, Noberto, a fifth-grader, will live in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home. Vargas works at an assisted-living facility.

The three neighbors, who all live on the same block, together attended Habitat educational classes that taught them how to maintain their yards and their houses and how to be good neighbors. So they know each other well.

"I'm happy that I know my neighbors," Powell said. "It shows the community coming together."

That's part of Habitat's changing approach, said Jason Haney, 36, Habitat's new executive director in Hamilton County. Haney, who moved up from his position as director of field operations, replaces Rhett Cecil, who recently retired but who now volunteers for Habitat and was helping on the Cherry Street homes. Zane Rayburn was introduced Saturday as the new construction director in the field, replacing Haney.

Haney said Habitat's new changing community approach is to plant a home and a family in a neighborhood.

Saturday's dedication "showcases what we're doing here," said Haney, whose volunteers distributed about 100 flyers inviting nearby neighbors. "Reaching out to neighbors, we see this weekend as an opportunity to get together and celebrate and make those introductions and build a community."

The new homeowners each received a new Bible, a painted flower pot, gift card from Lowes and a Thanksgiving turkey during the dedication.

This year, a record six families will be served with housing through this Habitat affiliate, Haney said. "We're excited to see that growth and to continue to answer the need for quality housing."

The three other homes, of this year's total of six, include a rehab at 8th and Pleasant streets in Noblesville for Powell's sister; plus a new home in Arcadia and another new home in Westfield.

The Arcadia home is a 1,700-square-foot two-story being built for Michael and Michelle Roehrich and their five children. "With seven people in the house, it necessitated going up," said Haney. Beck's Hybrids in Atlanta, a family-owned seed company, has been a huge sponsor and supporter of the build, he said. "Even their people did the framing and the exterior siding." A previous home was razed to build the Roehrich home. To keep some of the character from the old house that was torn down, Habitat saved a piece of architectural history from the exterior of the home and recreated new pieces to be used on the new home, which will be dedicated by the end of the year, Haney said.

For the sixth home in Westfield, Habitat partnered with former Habitat board member and Noblesville's Bedrock Builders owner Dan Wolf to build a home in a neighborhood for single mom Sarah Tate and her twin daughters. Wolf approached Habitat with the idea and led the efforts, providing subcontractors, and also partnered with St. Luke's United Methodist Church, which provided the volunteers. A Habitat home was already built next door the year prior.

Part of being accepted in the Habitat program, Habitat families must put in a minimum number of hours in classroom and labor on the new home. During the build, each owner learned new skills. Vargas said she learned to paint and to use a hammer. Powell learned how to put on siding, learned how to use a nail gun, and also learned how to paint. She said, "I painted every door in my house."

Each of the three homes, which all have different floor plans, each provide about 1,300 square feet, have three bedrooms and two baths, with energy-efficient utilities and appliances, engineered hardwood floors and James Hardie cement fiberboard exterior siding, which has a 50-year warranty.

Haney said for building supplies, Habitat tries to get the best quality materials for the best price. "To a lot of our families, this home will be the biggest asset they will ever own," he said.

Murphy's home was built using Habitat's "Women Build" program, whose participants and volunteers are women who want to learn construction skills. The Powell home and the Vargas home, which are next door to each other, were each an "Apostle Build," which uses volunteers came from various churches. About 500 volunteers are used to build each home.

Haney said, "We could not do it without our partners, without our volunteers."