In a downstairs closet in a Bryan housing project, Vanessa Smith for years collected an array of framed paintings, pictures and other decor she refused to hang in her home.
“I had faith in God,” she said. “I would not put those pictures up until I got a new house. I believed I was going to be in my own house somewhere else.”
In the summer of 1991, Vanessa Smith’s prayers were answered. After laboring alongside about 100 volunteers, including her two young sons, Justin and Quincy Smith, she watched as her Habitat for Humanity home – the third home built by the nonprofit organization in Bryan/College Station – turned in just a few days from a flat slab into a place where she could confidently raise her boys.
“I didn’t want my kids to grow up in that environment,” Vanessa Smith said about the housing project. “I was determined we were getting out some kind of way. I had a lot of friends over there. It wasn’t a terrible place to stay like some people think of the projects to be. I missed it, but I love my new home.”
Justin Smith, who was 10 years old during the Habitat for Humanity “blitz build” on Groesbeck Street, learned to frame, sheet rock, roof and paint in the one week his house was constructed. On June 29, the day the Smith family home came together 22 years ago, Justin Smith and his then 9-year-old brother told an Eagle reporter how excited they were to have their own bedrooms.
Now 32 years old, Justin Smith is the first child to have grown up in a Bryan-College Station Habitat home and earn a college degree (though he’s not the only one). After coaching football for six years at Bryan High School, Justin is making the transition to assistant principal for the 2013-2014 school year. “The good Lord, he puts us in different positions and I’m no better than the next guy, but I feel like God put us in the position to go be successful,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Habitat, maybe the outcome wouldn’t have been the same.”
Vanessa Smith worked in laundry and housekeeping for Crestview Retirement Community for 15 years before she began running her own in-home day care. Justin Smith said the trio was never rich, but as a child he didn’t entertain the idea that things could get better.
“We would look at different homes in different neighborhoods, and she used to tell us that one day we would be moving out of this place and into something else,” Justin Smith said. “She was always looking for a better situation for us. At home I felt like everything was OK. Of course, looking back, I don’t know if it was an ideal situation.”
Having grown up in a single-parent home, Justin Smith said, he’s proud of the way his mother raised him and his brother and that she had the motivation to change their circumstances. “I think I felt like we got a break,” Justin Smith said. “Many of the things we did as a family, or I’ve done myself as far as education and career, I think I still would have been able to do, but the home gave me that much more drive to be a productive part of our community. And my mom has given me the passion to give back.”
Now a proud homeowner himself, Justin Smith said he’s inspired by his mother, who paid off the Habitat home mortgage in 2011.
Jim Davis, property director for Habitat, who was a volunteer when the Smith home was constructed, said he will never forget Vanessa and her boys. “Vanessa Smith was just a real doll to work around,” Davis said. “She knew nothing [about construction] and didn’t mind saying she knew nothing. She had the little boys out there and they insisted that they had to help because it was going to be their house. That was one of the things that made it so fun.”
Sitting in the home on Groesbeck Street 22 years after they first walked through the door, Vanessa and Justin Smith flipped through a photo album of the week their future came together.
“Wow, that was me,” Justin Smith said, smiling and pointing to a photo in an old newspaper clipping.
Paintings and photos once stacked in the closet of a housing project line the walls of the home Vanessa Smith had prayed, waited and worked for.