"We do have the power"
Two years ago, Indian River Habitat for Humanity recruited homeowner LaKisha Erwin to manage their neighborhood revitalization efforts, part of Habitat’s work with residents and community groups to renew neighborhoods. Indian River Habitat wanted to focus its work in Gifford, Erwin’s neighborhood.
Erwin wanted to say no — “To be honest, I was disappointed in the community. What I saw is people who had lost hope” — but felt she owed Habitat a debt far greater than just her mortgage.
“That house changed my life,” she says.
Fast forward and today Erwin sees Gifford through an altogether different lens. “I have learned so much about this community that I did not know — from who makes the best sweet potato pie to who has adopted foster kids,” she says. “To see the resilience of residents here at the ground level has been amazing. People have not lost hope. People are saying, ‘Don’t give up on us.’”
Erwin was unmarried with a toddler when she accompanied a friend to the Gifford community center to learn more about Habitat. Both women applied for a house and were accepted. “That was the beginning of me taking responsibility for myself and my actions,” Erwin says. “And that house and I have a pact. It needs me to pay my mortgage so that money can be used to build houses for other Habitat families.”
Erwin went on to earn an associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s in biblical studies and business and organizational management. She got a job at a local domestic violence shelter and discovered her love of counseling. When Indian River Habitat came calling, she was working as community services director at a nonprofit that helps low-income families in Indian River County become self-sufficient through education, job training and financial management classes.
LaKisha believes that God works in mysterious and sometimes humorous ways. Seven years ago, she married Famous Erwin, a mental health therapist who works with at-risk men and boys. “My prayer was, ‘Hey, God, I want a famous husband.’ He sent me a man named Famous,” she laughs.
Neighborhood revitalization is another instance of divine intervention, she says. “What I love about neighborhood revitalization is its focus on the assets of a community that are already there. We tell the neighborhood, ‘We want to do this with you, not for you. We want you to be independent.’”
Erwin and Indian River Habitat have helped residents and community groups organize two “Rock the Block Around the Clock” parties, month-long campaigns that have engaged local businesses and residents young, old and in-between. More than 70 Gifford families have partnered with Habitat on minor home repairs and beautification projects.
The extended campaigns are Habitat’s visible commitment to the community. “People are getting to know each other,” Erwin says, “and are getting inspired.”
She also has been working with residents to help establish a neighborhood advisory group. Every other week, neighbors gather in different homes to strategize on everything from forming a community watch to getting their voices heard with city officials.
The more difficult work has been getting the community to see Gifford as a place of promise, the way Erwin now does. “Sometimes people don’t realize the gifts that are already inside of them. Sometimes it takes someone else to unlock those gifts,” she says. “But I am seeing the change. And the people are saying, ‘We do have power. We can do this.’”