Thiha Maung of Kennewick couldn't find the words Saturday to express his joy at being part of the Habitat for Humanity picnic at Howard Amon Park in Richland.
His was one of 76 families who have become homeowners through Habitat housing projects. About 20 of those families, including Maung's, showed up for Saturday's picnic in the park.
Maung, 39, came to the U.S. from Myanmar in 2003, first settling in San Francisco where he met his wife Somrudee, 38, a refugee from Thailand.
"Because I was one of many people in my country who fought for democracy, I fled to the jungle so I wouldn't be arrested and had to live there for 10 years before coming to America," he said.
Sue Bannister, the family service coordinator for Habitat, said 15 countries are represented in Habitat housing, including Vietnam, Russia, Turkey, Thailand, Armenia, Nigeria, Laos, Philippines, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Kenya, Myanmar, Mexico, Afghanistan and the U.S.
"We have more homes in Kennewick being built that should be completed in January," Bannister said.
What makes the Habitat project so heartwarming is that low-income people who qualify for one of the homes are more than happy to sacrifice 500 hours of "sweat equity" into the building of their new home, she added.
Qualified applicants must meet a low-income standard, have the ability to pay a mortgage and be willing to partner in the labor to build the home.
Since 1994, the Tri-City area has provided 76 new homes for qualifying applicants, and none of those homes has ever gone into foreclosure.
"Most of our homeowners came here with nothing," said Theresa Richardson, executive director for Habitat for Humanity. "They work hard to own their own home. None have ever defaulted on a loan and we couldn't be more proud of them."
Habitat for Humanity holds the interest-free mortgages on all its homes, freeing the homeowners from dealing with banking institutions. The agency also is expanding its sphere of community development to include critical home repair work for qualifying elderly and disabled families.
For more information on how to donate to the Habitat for Humanity organization, go to www.habitatbuilds.com.
w Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; firstname.lastname@example.org