It was two decades ago, but Sue Wadsworth will never forget the people from a fledgling Habitat for Humanity program who helped build her house.

"They were there on a daily basis to lift me up, to give me encouragement," she told hundreds who attended the organization's 14th annual Hard Hat breakfast last Wednesday.

"I found myself broken by divorce, trying to start again, and have a place for my children. I was discouraged with people, with my church," she said. "They gave me my faith back."

Wadsworth told the packed Broadway Ballroom audience that the act of building a Habitat for Humanity house carries so much more meaning to those on the receiving end.

"You're building a life, repairing things in their heart and soul. Healing takes place on so many levels," she said. "It's so much deeper than the nails. It changes your life."

Her family was one of the first in Douglas County to move into a Habitat home, and last week they both marked a major milestone, as she became the first to pay off the mortgage in full. Wadsworth now officially owns her home.

"Twenty years later, I still am just as emotional as I was the first time," said Wadsworth, who also spoke at the inaugural Hard Hat breakfast. "I still wake up and want to do 'the dance.'"

Sweat equity

At the program's outset there were fewer volunteers, so they tended to spend more time on a build site than is presently the case. Now they can build a house in close to five weeks.

That initial group came largely from First Lutheran Church, says Lori Anderson, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Douglas County.

"They would work all day and call volunteers at night for the next day. That's what kept me going when I was hired," said Anderson, who joined the program a few years in. "They were just volunteers and were giving it everything they had. They're people of servant leadership and they want to give back."

Habitat requires the homebuyer also put in a couple hundred hours or so, what it terms "sweat equity."

Wadsworth, who admits to being a bit of a do-it-yourselfer, estimates she logged closer to 1,200 hours. She says she stained and varnished the woodwork, and did the drywall and finished the basement, which became her salon.

She put in a lot of time with the builders, and together they built more than a house. They forged a strong bond, and the builders became mentors to her.

"It's really transforming for both the volunteers and the homebuyer," Anderson said.

Wadsworth's own investment in the house cemented that relationship, too.

"If you talk to somebody who builds a house, you know the strain and decision-making that's involved," Wadsworth said. "If you do a lot of the work yourself, you become more emotionally attached to it."

She even rented a sod-cutter and tried cutting and moving sod to her yard, which was an adventure that required extra help. A garage was added in 2006, when her father tired of coming over in the winters to help get her car going.

Through the years, she raised three teenagers in the house, and when she flirted briefly with living someplace where winters don't seem interminable, her daughters let her know that wasn't an option.

"You can't sell this house," they told her.

"It means too much to them. This is grand central for them. There's a history here," Wadsworth said. "This is it for us."

A Habitat believer

As with so many turns in life, this one nearly did not happen. She wouldn't have known about the opportunity if not for Sandy Jackson of Counselor Realty tipping her off to the new-to-Alexandria Habitat program.

"She said there's a really cool thing, but at that time I was only working part-time and didn't have the income (required). I was so discouraged," Wadsworth said.

Although she moved to full-time and had been told to reapply if anything changed, it took a call from someone with Habitat to cause her to try again. This time she was accepted.

"I don't think I would have (reapplied) if they wouldn't have called back," she said. "It was a God thing."

Getting rejected the first time is fairly typical, Anderson said. The candidate is given a letter stating what to work on, and more than once their next application is successful.

"It takes a lot of courage and determination, and we want to set them up for success," she said.

Another way Habitat does that is by handling mortgages.

"A lot of people think of us as a builder, but we're also a lender," said Anderson, noting that they serve families who are unable to qualify for conventional lending.

Wadsworth typifies the type of person that Habitat is trying to help, said both Anderson and Ron Otterson, who was on the Family Selection Committee and joined in working on the house.

"She has been a delightful person to have received a home, and her girls were just absolutely thrilled. This was an excellent family experience," Otterson said.

One of the first homebuyers Anderson met was Wadsworth.

"She's such a positive person, and I was just inspired by her. I have been to her house several times. She's such an ambassador for our program," Anderson said.

That is because Wadsworth is such a believer in all that Habitat for Humanity stands for.

"To me, it's my home church. It was so inclusive," she said. "They take you in and love you. Habitat is something real that matters in people's lives."

Once she was in her home, she continued to volunteer for the program, and do whatever they needed her to do.

"And I never said no, because I couldn't!"