Tears flooded Jessie Ramirez's eyes as her daughter pointed to a photo of a home that might soon be theirs.
The single mother of three and native of El Salvador works in maintenance at St. Francis By the Sea Catholic School on Hilton Head Island and struggles to pay rent and bills. A typical mortgage on a three- to four-bedroom home on the island would have been impossible, she says.
Ramirez and other families gathered with Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity staff, board members, volunteers and Town of Hilton Head officials for a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the first step in creating 19 homes between Leg O Mutton Road and Mathews Drive.
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Ramirez is among 20 families who have been approved for homes through the local Habitat organization.
"This is our dream -- to have a home of our own," Ramirez, 31, said as she wiped away the tears. "I've lived on the island 11 years. I left El Salvador so I could have a better life for my family, and Habitat is helping make that happen."
Maria Vallejos, 35, is also a single-mother with four children. The native of Nicaragua works on the custodial staff at Hilton Head Island International Baccalaureate Elementary.
"I have children ages 4, 6, 8 and 11. We rent a three-bedroom apartment. I'm looking for the best opportunity for my kids and I can't afford a mortgage and struggle as it is with rent," Vallejos said. "It's hard in this economy to make ends meet, to pay the bills," especially with four children and one source of income.
"I'm blessed for these people to make this possible for us," she said.
The town donated 14 acres to Habitat to build the homes. As part of the deal, Habitat will pay to build a road and extend utilities along Alex Patterson Drive, a move that will benefit other area residents.
Habitat built two homes on the island in 1996 and 2000, but land prices there forced the nonprofit organization to focus most of its efforts in Bluffton, said Patricia Carey Wirth, president and CEO of Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity.
"I'm overjoyed. This project will address a long-standing and pressing need for affordable housing for low-income families on the resort island," she said. "There are many people working in the service and hospitality industry on Hilton Head making long commutes because they can't find affordable housing on the island."
Wirth said Habitat plans to seek state and federal grants along with private donations to pay for the road and water, sewer and electric services, expected to cost about $1 million. She hopes to begin that construction within a year.
Hilton Head Habitat builds houses at no profit and sells them to approved buyers, who then make low monthly mortgage payments. Those payments are placed in a revolving fund used to build more houses.
Locally, Habitat has completed 91 houses.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.