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Szweda Family

Lawella and her daughters finally have a place to call home.

Lawella is a mother of two, three if you count her dog. She loves baking cookies, doing arts and crafts, collecting socks and making hats to donate to the inner city kids. She is a homeowner, more specifically, a Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity homeowner who still volunteers weekly with the Fox Valley Builder’s Club. She is also a disabled veteran.

Lawella, like many veterans, joined the military for a variety of reasons.  The military offered her more than any college or job could: a way out of poverty, a home, an education and the pride of serving her country. And while all veterans’ stories are unique, her story is much like others, leaving and returning home to nothing.

When Lawella graduated high school, she moved to South Carolina with a boyfriend, who was in the military at the time. She received a Secretarial Science Associate’s Degree, but really dreaded working as a secretary. After consulting with her boyfriend, she came to the conclusion that the military had much to offer her, including a way out of a mundane routine and the possibility of making this into a career. In 1985, Lawella enlisted in the Air Force as active-duty personnel where she received a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Resource Administration.

Lawella met her now ex-husband during her four years in active duty. After her four years of service had ended, her husband continued a life devoted to the military while Lawella stayed behind as a military wife to raise their two children. Lawella explains how being a military spouse for 17 years was so difficult. “I was basically a single parent while my husband was deployed for more than six months at a time every year. I raised our children by myself and had to take care of all my family’s physical and emotional needs on my own. We lived in military housing on base and there was always a constant turnover of Air Force families moving in and out. It was so hard to make friends because we were always moving from base to base.”  Life had thrown everything at her, including natural disasters, poor housing, and the longing to have a permanent place to belong.

“Growing up in a military family was a very unique experience. Rather than remembering a childhood home, I remember all the people I met, the best restaurants from all the different towns, and being raised to be independent and ready for change at the drop of a hat,” said Lawella’s youngest daughter. “I had to learn from a very young age to say goodbye to good friends, become used to being the new kid in town, and that I shouldn't expect my bedroom to stay my bedroom for long. My family was one of the few constants in my life. I relied on them to keep me steady when I didn't have anything else familiar around me.”

In 2013, Lawella’s husband retired from the service and announced that he wanted out of their marriage and walked out. She could no longer live on the military base and she had no money, so she filed for divorce and bankruptcy, it felt like her entire world had collapsed. She looked for housing and apartments but was denied due to her credit. She turned to family, but there wasn’t any room for her and her two daughters anywhere. They were finally offered a place to stay at a family friend’s summer house by the lake, where they stayed for a couple of years. It was a two-bedroom cottage, that lacked proper insulation and was very difficult to keep warm in the brutal Michigan winters. Not the best place to live but a roof over our heads.

While she was working at the Ace Hardware nearby, one of the few stores in a neighboring town, she was introduced to a volunteer who had come in for supplies for Habitat for Humanity. She remembered hearing about Habitat for Humanity many years ago while she worked in a dental office. The dentist’s housekeeper was a Habitat homeowner and talked about the organization.

She was intrigued by what Habitat for Humanity did, so she decided to inquire about volunteering. Since it was the winter they were not working on any homes, so she pushed the idea volunteering with this organization out of her mind.

Two years went by and her oldest daughter graduated from college and moved to Illinois to pursue a teaching career. Lawella wanted to go with her daughter in search of better housing opportunities and decided the family would continue to live together. In 2015, Lawella found a nice apartment, but due to her poor credit history and earlier bankruptcy, her application for an apartment was denied. She had no one else to turn to. So she ultimately broke down and asked her ex-husband to be a co-signer on the lease for her and the children.

Lawella always had a military mindset to buckle down and just get through it, whatever it may be. “You move onto the next stage in life and continue to grind, and its ok to ask for help if you need it.” she said.  This is when the memory of Habitat for Humanity came back to her.  She called to inquire about the homeownership process and came in to the office to apply.  She thought, “I won’t know if I can qualify unless I try.”  

After she submitted her application, she heard back from the Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity affiliate quite fast. Technically, she reached out to them first. “I honestly didn’t think I would be approved since I was under the impression Habitat for Humanity was for young single moms,” said Lawella.

She laughed as she reminisced about being told she was approved. She could not take the suspense, so she decided to take her fate into her own hands. After getting home one day in December, 2015, she notes it was a few days before Christmas, she called Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity to get any news on her application. She was told they just mailed a letter to her the previous day, but since they had her on the phone, they told her she was approved for a home.

She remembers screaming and crying out of feelings of relief and security. She told herself she would wait until Christmas to tell her two daughters the good news, so to keep her mind busy, she went out for a drive. Out of pure excitement, she quickly dialed the phone to call her daughters and revealed the news, just hours after ending the call with Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity.

That has all changed since she and her daughters have moved into their Habitat home.

“In our community, they sit on their porches, take their trash out, do yard work, exchange cookies at Christmas, and pass each other and say hi,” said Lawella. “I’ve even seen a noticeable difference in the sense of community since a Habitat home has moved into the neighborhood. I’m making permanent friends. I have never done that before.”

This home and her Fox Valley community gave Lawella security and the luxury of building a home that is unique to her. She has established a life with roots connecting to all her neighbors and the Fox Valley community as a whole.

“This house is me. It’s security. It’s a peace of mind for me knowing that my daughters will never be told they have nowhere to live. They will never have to go through the panic of hearing they have no options.” 

Lawella has completed more than her share of sweat equity hours and generously helps other Habitat families with their homes as well. Lawella and her daughters had their dedication celebration in March of 2018 and have settled in very nicely since!


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