This is Home.
When I first meet Mary Catherine, a Spanish teacher at Khalsa Montessori School, she takes me to her backyard right away.
We pass an array of shaded potted plants, beautiful pottery, and enter a backyard lush with apple and orange trees, plum vines, figs, and dotted with spring flowers. A clothesline is pinned with clothes. A sapphire blue pool shimmers. She’s pointing out the areas of the yard she hopes to transform into raised beds so she’ll have an accessible vegetable garden, the window she wants to change into French doors that lead right back into this oasis. There’s a breeze and birdsong, and purple bougainvillea flowers growing up a trellis against the back of the house. Their white rabbit, Shiffon, nuzzles her way through her outdoor hutch to greet us, and her dog Snoopy sweeps his tail back and forth. It feels like a little paradise, right in Mary Catherine’s own backyard.
“I said if I have to spend the rest of my life in this wheelchair, I need an inspirational view,” says Mary Catherine. She gazes across her yard and says, “The most beautiful view,” and smiles.
Mary Catherine and David, along with their children Clarissa and Colton, have lived in their Habitat house for over 16 years. There’s a shelf in the laundry room that catalogues Clarissa and Colton’s heights, David’s pottery displayed in the living room, ornamental snowflakes that each represent one Christmas spent in their house. The hallways are covered with family photos of camping trips and relatives – from Colton proudly displaying a caught fish to a black and white portrait of Mary Catherine as a girl with her 9 siblings. Mary Catherine made the curtains that hang in her bedroom window and the stained glass that shimmers near her ceiling.
“I think Clarissa and Colton were really tickled to be able to say this is home, and have all their memories here,” Mary Catherine says. “Honestly, I don’t ever want to leave.”
Habitat designed a completely accessible house for Mary Catherine. She shows the care that was taken in every room – how the drawers are raised in the kitchen so her wheels don’t nick the cabinets. How one countertop is low enough for her to prepare food and wash dishes in the sink. Instead of having a bathroom that opens into the hallway, where it would be more difficult to maneuver her wheelchair, Mary Catherine can easily access it from her master bedroom, with useful handlebars along the shower wall and an accessible pedestal sink.
“I think living in an accessible house has made all the difference,” says her husband David, an English teacher at Pima Community College. “I don’t have to do much to help her. She can do most things for herself.”
That independence means everything to Mary Catherine. She feels totally secure and safe in her Habitat home. “It’s turned into a sanctuary for me. And that sanctuary is permeating out of the walls and into the yard, the garden, the light in my room,” she says.
Mary Catherine and David’s lives changed forever one Christmas when a small sliver entered her skin. “A little piece of wood gets in,” she says, tapping her hand. “So I pull it out, and am on my way. But by that evening I already started to feel it.” She felt weak and strange, and at first thought she had caught the flu. But by New Year’s Day, she was hospitalized. “I had something like 24 surgeries in 6 weeks. It was brutal. They put me in a self-induced coma.” After a couple of weeks, doctors had to amputate both legs to ensure Mary Catherine survived.
She was away from her family for seven months. Her daughter Clarissa, who just earned her bachelor’s degree in Geographic Sciences and Community Planning this spring, was 2 at the time. Colten, currently a civil engineering student at Northern Arizona, was just 8 months old.
The community rallied around her husband and young children, and Mary Catherine remembers feeling the same way when they were accepted as Habitat homebuyers.“I have learned what community can do,” Mary Catherine says. “When community works together, I am blown away. Whether it’s just two people or all of Habitat, it’s really nice when people willingly help each other in a little community.”
“One of my favorite memories I have of my home
is the day we brought home our dog, Snoopy. We rescued him from an abusive living environment, and we don’t think he had much experience being in a house before. Watching him go through all our rooms, sniffing every corner, and investigating our backyard was a special intersection of our new family pet and our home, marking a new chapter for my family.” — Clarissa Leighou
One of Mary Catherine’s favorite facts about her Habitat house is that students with disabilities from Howenstine High School helped build their house. “They built an accessible house!” Mary Catherine said. She shows me pictures of the day the house was transported from the high school to the lot where she now lives. In the photos, little Clarissa and Colton are smiling, sitting inside the unfinished walls of their future homes.
And now, as their oldest daughter finishes college, Mary Catherine and David feel astonished, humbled, and delighted by the community they’re a part of. It’s been a joy raising their family in their Habitat house, watching their children grow up into such well-rounded young people. “I never thought in 19 years I would be here and I would be as well as I’m doing,” Mary Catherine says. “Honestly, I just feel blessed.”