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Do-gooders meet over milk, cookies

 

The Orange County Register
By Frank Mickadeit

 

I imagine that for every person who meets 10-year-old Luis Ortiz, there's a point during his remarkable story that brings water to the eyes. My own lump-in-the-throat moment is the part where he and his mother, Carla, are living in a one-room apartment in Santa Ana and where, from his earliest memories, he would play with building blocks and doodle with pencil and paper to design houses. At age 5, he didn't know there was a job called architect, but he knew what he wanted to be.

When Luis was 7, he and Carla were picked for a Habitat for Humanity house in Placentia. As I wrote a few months ago, Luis was so appreciative, he decided to pay it forward. He began hiding money in his new room, in a box. One day, his mom found it. He confessed: He was raising money so other kids could have homes like his.

His mom drove him to Habitat offices in Santa Ana, where he unloaded what he'd raised by selling off his own toys at a yard sale and by going door to door: $46.50.

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the day Carla and Luis moved in. I went to Habitat HQ on South Ritchie in the late afternoon, where a milk-and-cookies party was being held to behold and celebrate what Luis's gesture has since wrought. I met Elaina Breen, an Irvine nurse-practitioner who became a key figure.

In October of 2008, Breen, a Habitat volunteer for years, was debating whether to go to an afternoon tea for Habitat. She had been working on a home-improvement project, was all grubby and really didn't want to go. But at the last minute, something made her decide to clean up and drive to Newport. Little Luis was a speaker that day. Breen was so taken with what he'd done - by this point, he'd given $101 of his own money - she decided to help him.

She talked to local Habitat director Sharon Ellis and Luis, and they came up with a plan. Breen would underwrite the manufacture of hundreds of little wooden house-shaped piggy bank kits. Parents would buy the kits from Habitat for $10, work with their kids to assemble them, and the kids would set about raising money to fill them.

Luis's goal would become theirs: Nothing less than the first Habitat home anywhere funded entirely by kids.

Breen used some of her inheritance from her mother to fund the manufacturing. "I come from a line of women who never saw a construction project they couldn't conquer," she told me. "My mother would have appreciated this."

About 500 kits have gone out and 500 more are ready. Yesterday's milk-and-cookies party - sponsored by Tustin based Sunwest Bank - was an open house for the O.C. children who'd thus far built banks and filled them. They were to bring them in and meet their fellow junior do-gooder, Luis.

By the time I left, about a dozen kids had showed, with more expected to trickle in with their banks and money in the coming weeks. There's a ways to go to get the $250,000 for a house, but I don't doubt this is going to snowball. Go to the version of this column at ocregister.com/columns/frank/ to see photos of Luis, Elaina and some of the kids with their banks. Go to habitatoc.org to get a kit.

I'd requested some quiet time with my interview target. I like doing these with cigar and bourbon in hand, but in this case, we got glasses of milk and gingerbread cookies and found a cubicle.

"So, you really want to be an architect, huh?" I asked Luis.

"Oh, yes, ever since I was little, I've building little houses with blocks."

"My father," I told Luis, "grew up in a two-room cabin on an Indian reservation in Nebraska. I've seen it. When he was about 20, he went off to fight in World War II." When my father returned from Germany, I explained, the Army paid for college. He could study whatever he wanted.

I took the big gold class ring off my finger and handed it to Luis. He marveled at the heft, the deep-red stone and the intricate carvings. Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 1950.

"See," I told Luis, "he was like you. He was this poor Indian kid living with his mom and one brother. He wanted to be an architect. ... You can do this."

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Mickadeit writes Mon.-Fri. Contact him at 714-796-4994.

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