By Katie Marini
Suzanne Williams was just 9 years old when she watched helplessly as her house burned down. In the moment that she lost everything, Williams grasped the full value of home.
Williams grew up in Locke, a town so small that her elementary school was across the street from her house. “I was literally sitting in class, looking at my teacher, when she said, ‘Oh my God, Suzanne, your house is on fire.’” Williams rushed out of school and ran to her burning house. Firefighters blocked the entrance, when Williams forcefully demanded to get inside to rescue her grandmother and baby brother.
Big for her age, Williams figures she could have given the firefighters a run for their money — if her father hadn’t arrived home at that moment to inform Williams that her grandmother and brother were safe. Once she learned that her family was out of harm’s way, Williams stood steadily by, as the house she grew up in disappeared in front of her eyes.
There was no money to immediately rebuild. Unfortunately for Williams and her family, her parents had not purchased insurance. And with just her father’s income at the factory, there was not much spare cash to quickly rebuild the house or purchase another.
As the oldest and biggest of her siblings, the duty of helping her father rebuild the house fell on Williams’ shoulders. Her family, consisting of five children and two parents, rented a small, one-bedroom apartment across the street and bought building materials slowly with each paycheck. “When my dad came home from the factory at night, I would help him with all the tasks, hanging drywall and hammering nails,” Williams said. With the help of friends and family, it took a year to rebuild.
And this is how Suzanne Williams, executive director of Syracuse Habitat for Humanity, realized her calling in life. At age 57, Williams knows what it feels like to be homeless. For the past 12 years, she has made it her mission to build homes for those who cannot buy them for themselves.
“I honestly was just following what God told me to do,” she said. “And I’ve just been doing what he tells me ever since.”
Wearing a brightly colored pashmina, Williams twists her fingers through her curly hair, as she seeks to solve the never-ending problems of poverty and homelessness for the “working poor” in Central New York.
“We’re trying to build houses for the people who have the same amount of living expenses as middle class earners, but they’re trying to do it all on a minimum wage salary. Who would have thought that the jobs that were intended for high school and college students are jobs that people actually use to raise families on — and at the same wage,” Williams said.
In her role as executive director, Williams works with community leaders, corporations and volunteers to construct adequate housing for needy people in Syracuse. During her tenure, Williams has nearly tripled the number of new houses constructed. She has facilitated the building of more than 45 houses — three times the number of houses that were built in the 15 years before she took on the leadership role.
Each project takes an immense amount of time and energy. Williams, along with her staff of seven, spends her days juggling a myriad of duties, from organizing and recruiting volunteers, approaching corporations and private citizens for donations, coordinating with contractors over the status of houses-in-construction, and, most importantly, reviewing applications for qualified home candidates. “We sell houses to people that nobody else would sell a house to,” Williams said.
As Williams, mother of four, gazes out the window of her office on Otisco Street, she reflects on the never-ending number of people who struggle to buy homes for themselves — disabled veterans, single mothers, parents trying to raise their children on minimum wage salaries, just to name a few. Williams knows that she doesn’t have the resources to help them all, but she does what she can.
This year, Williams started the first Veteran’s Build in New York, which provides two specially adapted affordable homes for local veterans in need. Two veterans are set to receive the houses: the first house is going to Mike Smith, a disabled veteran living in substandard conditions in Norfolk, and the second house is going to Felicia Plunkett, a single-mother and disabled veteran who was living in a shelter in Syracuse with her twin 5-year-old sons and 2-month-old baby.
After meeting with Plunkett, Williams was determined to help her to obtain a house. “You have to admire somebody who has that kind of will. And she wants to buy a house — holy God!” Within a few months, Williams approved Plunkett’s application and found the resources to build a house. Building has commenced on Plunkett’s new house at 115 Fitch St., Syracuse, and soon the mother of three will have a home to call her own.