Affluent Help Needy Build Home : Bridging the Miles Between 2 Worlds

Times Staff Writer

The distance between the two towns is only about 1,800 miles, but they are worlds apart.

One is Malibu, among the most affluent communities in the country, famous for its celebrity residents and sun-drenched beaches. The other is Coahoma, Miss., population 350, a downtrodden Delta town amid the cotton fields in one of the poorest counties in the nation, where 90% of the residents live in wooden shanties.

But recently, the two towns were linked by a common interest, and a new house was raised in Coahoma, built and paid for by 26 volunteers from the Malibu Presbyterian Church.

The project was part of a continuing venture sponsored by a number of charity organizations to provide housing for America's poor. The Coahoma program was started last year by Habitat for Humanity. World Vision, a Christian relief organization, provided initial funding for the project.

Building Ties

"These people have had nothing all their lives," said Steve Blinn, an elder at the Malibu church who organized the trip. "We went there just to build a house, but we ended up building a relationship with the community."

The Malibu contingent returned home April 22, after spending one week in the Northwestern Mississippi town, building a three-bedroom, one-bath house for Jeanette Conway and her two children. The house was built about a block from Conway's former residence, a dilapidated two-room shack that resembles most of the other homes in Coahoma.

Blinn said church members trained for the construction venture by working on a house in Point Dume, where the average single-family home costs about $1 million. Prices are more reasonable in Coahoma. The group spent $10,500 for building materials and the 1/8-acre parcel where Conway's home sits.

Doug McGlashan, district director for World Vision in Los Angeles, said the Malibu group is one of several local churches that will send volunteers to Mississippi this year to rebuild the town's 87 homes. Churches from Thousand Oaks and La Canada Flintridge will send contingents this summer.

'Shanties Are for Real'

"Coahoma is the kind of place that when you drive there and look around you, you immediately know why you're there," McGlashan said. "There is nothing about it that has been Hollywoodized. The shanties are for real."

The relief group is working on Coahoma's 10th new home. The Malibu team built the ninth. Twenty homes are expected to be completed by the end of the year. No houses had been built in the town in 25 years, according to local officials.

Habitat for Humanity, whose volunteer carpenters include former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, has been providing housing for the nation's needy since it was founded in 1976. In each city where a Habitat project opens, a local committee chooses the new homeowners based on need, willingness to help with the work and the ability to repay.

Conway will pay a monthly $85 mortgage for her new house. The money will go into a community development fund to pay for houses and other capital projects. Coahoma recently hooked up its new federally financed sewer system, and residents such as Conway are familiarizing themselves with indoor bathrooms.

Telephones Rare

Conway could not be reached for comment--telephones are also a rare commodity in Coahoma.

"This is about more than building houses," Coahoma Mayor W. J. Jones said recently. "It's about building new life."

Blinn said the Malibu group plans to keep up its contacts with residents in Coahoma and will look for similar projects to assist the needy around the country.

"These people don't have anything by our standards, but there's a real richness in their hearts," he said. "To give someone a new lease on life is an incredible experience."

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