Guest column: Carrying on a special legacy for the working poor

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By Sam Durso, M.D.

President, CEO

Habitat for Humanity of Collier County

I believe that each of us desire to leave our world a little better than when we arrived.

My late wife, Mary Ann Durso, was no different.

As was true throughout her life, she did everything with the fullest measure of what she had to offer. Her legacy stands as a testimony to her passion to make a difference, and particularly to positively impact the lives of children living in poverty.

In 1993, when Mary Ann and I retired to Marco Island, she became involved in Guardian Ad Litem, a strong and critically important organization which advocates for our community’s abused and neglected children. At the same time, I picked up my hammer and began working on Habitat for Humanity homes, beginning with the county’s Habitat 100th house in Immokalee.

As I learned more about the work that Habitat was doing and the incredible impact on children and families struggling to break the cycle of poverty, I encouraged Mary Ann to join me on a home visit to a prospective partner family (the last step in the exhaustive application process).

Having been in and out of many homes in Immokalee, she knew that a safe, stable and affordable home could make a life-changing difference to all the children in a family and even could preclude the need for Guardian Ad Litem.

After that first visit, the rest, as they say, is history.

For 15 years, we worked together to strengthen the Collier County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity to be able to reach as many families as possible. By building relationships with generous donors, hard-working volunteers, inspirational partner families, we witnessed the transformation that occurred in everyone who got involved.

Together, we built a strong and dedicated staff that multiplied our efforts and in 2002, we reached the milestone of building 100 homes in a single year.

Mary Ann’s efforts remained intensely focused on the families and through many of her initiatives, we have seen the success of 1,600 local families who now own the homes that they helped to build.

It was Mary Ann’s insight that led to our requirement that mortgage payments be made in person. In this way, our relationship with partner families remains strong and late payments are a rarity (our delinquency rate is less than 5 percent). A careful balance between tough love and unconditional acceptance remains one of her greatest lessons and something that our staff continues to strive to emulate.

In 2008, just months after Mary Ann’s passing, Habitat for Humanity International selected Naples to be the site of the 300,000th Habitat home built in the world. That home was funded and erected in Mary Ann’s memory and serves as a constant reminder of her deep dedication and unwavering commitment to the mission of Habitat for Humanity.

Mary Ann was taken from us too soon. But, the legacy that she has left continues to offer hope to Collier families living in desperate conditions. Her inspiration to those who knew her and worked alongside her remains the driving force behind new initiatives and programs to support and empower partner families.

The year marks the five year anniversary of her passing; and Habitat Collier celebrates our 35th Anniversary of building homes in partnership with qualifying, low wage-earning families.

If you are looking for a way to positively impact our community for generations to come, I invite you to join me in the work of Habitat for Humanity as together we build a legacy and make a life-changing difference. For more information about volunteering or donating to support the Habitat for Humanity of Collier County, please visit www.habitatcollier.org or call our office at 239-775-0036.

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