Talladega's first Habitat home owner speaks at conference
Shirley Harmon Ward told a Habitat for Humanity leadership conference that she and her husband, Bishop Elect Charles Ward, were proud and grateful to have been able to realize the American dream of home ownership.
TALLADEGA – For the fifth year in a row, the Habitat for Humanity National Service Leadership Conference took place at Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center, bringing together almost 400 Americorps volunteers working with that organization in 100 communities nationwide. At their closing ceremony Thursday, two very special guest speakers addressed the group.

The first was Shirley Harmon Ward, now the outright owner of the first ever Habitat for Humanity house built in Talladega.

At the time, she said, she was a single parent of three, one in college at Jacksonville State University and the other two in high school. She had approached every real estate company she could find about acquiring a home of her own, but kept meeting with excuses why they could not sell her one, she said.

Eventually, she gave up this approach and decided to apply through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was turned down there as well.

“I always had faith, but it was wearing a little thin,” she said. “They asked me how much I paid to get my son’s hair cut, and I said ‘nothing, I do it myself.’ They asked me how much I spent on my daughters going to the salon, and I said ‘nothing, I do all my children’s hair.’ They said what if they start nagging you about going to the salon, and I said ‘I’m a grown up and I know how to say no.’

“Then they said what if you got sick, and I said I would go to work sick; I will make my house payment. They still turned me down. I’m a good person, and I try to help others, so I couldn’t figure out what was happening. It’s hard when things go bad even though you’re trying to do good.”

Not long after that, a co-worker mentioned to her that Habitat for Humanity was taking applications, and would be selecting a family to build a home for. She said she had never heard of the organization before that.

“You’re still thinking with your own mind, but you’ve got to remember that God has a ram somewhere in that bush for you,” she said.

She filled out the application and went to drop it off on the last day to apply, only to find the office closed. She tried to slip it under the door, but was unsuccessful.

After dropping off the application the next Monday, she didn’t think about it again until she got the call saying her family was getting a new house.

“I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I told my mother about the call, and she said they had called her to get my work number. Then they called me at home and told me the location. I rode out there and thought that it was nothing but weeds, but before too long, Mr. (Drewl) Yarborough was laying the foundation.”

She watched her new home go up, and had lunch with the volunteers on Saturdays.

“These were not young people like you are,” she said. “They were older people, and I was scared one of them was going to fall. I remember hearing about somebody falling off a roof and breaking both legs and an arm. I just thought, please God, don’t let Paw-Paw fall off the roof.”

In addition to becoming a homeowner, Ward said she was even able to pay the mortgage off early, because “God also sent me my husband, Bishop Elect Charles Ward. And I made a lot of new friends, especially Wendy (Westerhouse). In First Thessalonians 5:18 it says ‘In everything, give thanks.’ And I know that the Lord put me on their minds when they were choosing that first family, and I’m grateful. It’s more than just our house, it’s our home. I always encourage my kids to do their best, work hard and help others. That’s what (Habitat) did for me. When someone asks you to help them or donate to them, run to that person. Hold on; don’t give up. We don’t always see Him, but God carries us.”

The other guest speaker was Tim Morehouse, a member of the only American fencing team ever to win an Olympic medal. They won the silver in Beijing in 2008.

Morehouse is also a veteran of Teach for America, teaching seventh-grade social studies in Washington Heights, N.Y., near where he grew up.

He was born into a pretty rough neighborhood, and started school there, but his family’s fortunes changed and he transferred to a private school when he was 12.

He did not do well at first, being ill-prepared, and had “a really mean PE teacher” to boot. One day, he saw a sign saying “Join the fencing team and get out of gym,” so he signed up without knowing what fencing was.

Being part of the fencing team helped bolster his confidence and improve his academic performance. Even so, he said, his style was somewhat graceless and unorthodox, prompting some to observe that he looked “more like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant than a fencer.”

He continued fencing while attending Brandies University, where he first heard about Teach for America on the radio. When he signed up after graduation, he ended up teaching four blocks away from where he grew up.

In 2000, he decided to try and make the Olympic team. After competing in various tournaments in Europe at his own expense, he was nowhere close to achieving that goal. It was when he learned to embrace his natural, but technically not correct, style that he made the team in time for the 2004 games. They beat Hungary, but lost out to Russia for the bronze.

Most of his strengths are defensive, he said. He was competing for the Fencing World Cup in Algeria and made it to the finals before blowing a 14-12 lead by going on the offensive.

In Beijing, he said, his teammates won a rematch against the Russians, and then it became clear that they would meet their goal of medaling. The teammate who scored the winning points did a somersault after scoring the final point and the rest of the team ran out to hug each other. Although he doesn’t remember it, he said he passed out as he was getting up from the bench, and video shows that when the huddle broke, he collapsed.

At this point, they were competing for the gold against the French team, who had appeared not to be celebrating at all. They lost badly.

“Our goal was to win a medal,” he said. “Their goal was to win the gold.”

The same team competed again in 2012, but failed to bring home a medal this time.

During the past four years, he said, he has been working to promote a “Fencing In the Schools” Program, with a goal of signing up 1 million students nationwide in 10 years. He has also recently published a book.

Contact Chris Norwood at cnorwood@dailyhome.com

© 2012