Ana Cruz heard about the local Habitat for Humanity and described the organization and its offerings to her husband. But he didn't believe her.
Through the nonprofit, volunteers would help them build a home? And it would be theirs -- to live in, to raise their family in, to own?
It was true, and the Cruz family -- Ana and Jesus have six children, all but one of whom now are grown -- moved into their five-bedroom home near Whittier Elementary School in Pasco in 1999.
"It was a wonderful experience," Ana Cruz told the Herald. "It was incredible."
She and her husband recently celebrated a major milestone: They finished paying off the mortgage.
The organization that helped them become homeowners also is celebrating a milestone of its own -- its 20th anniversary.
As Tri-County Partners Habitat for Humanity -- which serves Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties -- marks that milestone, it's also looking to the future -- with more homes going up and plans to expand its reach outside the Tri-Cities.
"This is an exciting time to volunteer and come be part of this organization," said Rick Jansons, executive director.
During the past two decades, almost 90 homes have been constructed through the local Habitat for Humanity. The organization works with clients who have a need for housing, who are willing to put in "sweat equity" and who have the ability to repay a no-interest mortgage. It also helps under-resourced homeowners with repair and rehabilitation projects.
Larry Merk of Kennewick helped form the local Habitat and has been a volunteer ever since. He's taken on different tasks over the years and serves as foreman of the volunteer construction crew that works on Mondays.
Retired from information technology, Merk said he likes the construction process. He's been involved, directly or indirectly, with every home the local Habitat has built, and when the families finally get to move in -- it's emotional, he said. It's special.
He said he's gotten a lot out of his time as a volunteer. "I'm not unique in this world. There are people who've dedicated their lives to Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire, a Humane Society -- there are all kinds of opportunities to volunteer. I guess I'm lucky that I found my niche," he said.
He encourages others, especially those who are retired with some free time during the week, to consider helping Tri-County Partners Habitat.
The nonprofit recently broke ground on three homes near Virgie Robinson Elementary School in Pasco. A subdivision with 24 homes also will be constructed over the winter near Whittier Elementary in Pasco, along with two homes in Badger Mountain South in Richland and a home in Walla Walla. Habitat also is working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties, with a vision for a new club location, with some Habitat homes nearby, in east Kennewick.
The almost 90 Habitat homes built over the past two decades have largely been in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, and Jansons said a goal is to expand more into Prosser, north Franklin County and Walla Walla.
The organization needs people and groups to help in that effort, and it also needs people with experience in retail to volunteer in its store at 309 Wellsian Way in Richland. The store sells reduced price items including building materials, home furnishings and appliances.
Habitat makes a difference, Jansons said.
"What we've seen over these 20 years is that the families stay in their homes. They become an anchor in the community," he said, noting that the stability brings benefits such as greater school success for kids. "It's more than a home -- we're working to change the lives of families and that results in improving our community."
Jose Cruz, 23, one of Jesus and Ana's sons, was just a kid when his family's home was being built, but he remembers pitching in.
Now, several of the older Cruz kids have moved out, but the house still is headquarters for the family. The site of barbecues, celebrations.
"This is the place where everybody gets together," Jose Cruz said.
"Every weekend, and sometimes every day," his mother added.
Ana and Jesus originally are from Mexico. Jesus came to the U.S. and worked in the fields, going back and forth for a time. Ana and the family eventually joined him, and the family lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment and then a mobile home before they got their own home through Habitat.
Habitat for Humanity made such a difference for them, said Ana, who works as a para-educator.
She said she's grateful. "Amazing people -- a big blessing from God," she said.
"I don't have words to explain my feelings," she added, but then she thought of a couple: "It's amazing."
HOW TO HELP
To learn about volunteering or donating to Tri-County Partners Habitat for Humanity, call 509-943-5555 ot go to www.habitat builds.com.