A bright smile swept over Brenda Marshall's face as she led two of her grandchildren into their home. It wasn't the same as when her father had bought it when she was 21 years old back in 1970. Nor was it the same as when they had lived in it before the devastating fire five years ago. Its familiar walls held all her memories of growing up, getting married, raising children and eventually her own grandchildren.
It all happened in this space.
And thanks to some dedicated community members, she has her house back. Sure, it has new walls, plumbing, electricity and carpeting. It needed a new roof, insulation, heating and air-conditioning. The front porch was repaired, and it has new appliances and sod for the yard.
But that doesn't change the meaning the space has to Brenda. It's hers, and despite financial and personal hardships she suffered following the fire, she could never bear to part with it — even when it was in complete disrepair, uninhabitable and boarded up.
It all began when Brenda had left her three grandchildren and their mother, her daughter, in her home while she went to attend a family function.
She wasn't gone more than 10 minutes before she received the heartbreaking news.
Her home was ablaze.
"January 9th, 2002. Around four p.m. I'll never forget that," Brenda said.
One of her grandsons, a toddler at the time, had managed to light a candle in the house. Some wax from the candle had spilled on his hand — causing him to drop the lit candle into a trash bin.
It ignited the contents of the bin and burned the entire back half of her home. Smoke damage ruined what was left.
"Maybe in a way, it was a blessing," Brenda said, smiling at the boy in her new kitchen. "In a way, he made this all possible."
Even though she couldn't live in the house, she couldn't sell it, either. It was hers. So she spent the next five years paying mortgage payments on her uninhabitable house on top of her rent and other necessities. But the emotional and financial strife weren't enough to make her abandon her home.
"I almost gave up three times," Brenda said. "But every time I went to sleep, there was a voice that said, 'Don't do it."'
Then she met Scott, who asked to remain anonymous, of Trackside LLC, a corporation in the neighborhood that had teamed up with Salt Lake Neighborhood Housing Services to help clean up the area.
She was standing at the gate of the remains of her home, staring — the windows boarded up — when he approached her. He asked if she owned it and if she would consider selling it — she wouldn't. He asked if she would be fixing it up — she didn't have the money to.
Scott said he could help. He connected her with the Neighborhood Housing Services to work out her financial issues; he made calls to people he knew, people that he thought might be willing to donate their time and services.
The project began as a repair job — he didn't expect that they would have to completely gut the 99-year-old home in order to make it habitable again.
Yet, six months and thousands of dollars later, the house is nearly complete. The money or the time spent on the house isn't what it's about, Scott said. It's about the people. It's about Brenda. It's about revitalizing the community and making it a beautiful place.
"We are rebuilding the neighborhood one family at a time, one person at a time," Scott said. "Brenda Marshall has hope now — her life fell often in the trenches, but she has hope now."
That's what Salt Lake Neighborhood Housing Services is all about, Daniel Pacheco, communications director and dedicated volunteer of the organization said. Before the organization began 30 years ago, the small Guadalupe neighborhood where Brenda's house is had been 70 percent rentals and 40 percent boarded up. The property was in immense disrepair.
"We worked house by house, block by block," Pacheco said. "As a strategy, we would purchase the homes and fix them up and maintain them by having residents serve on our board and committees. ... We do everything from consulting on financial situations, credit, whether a buyer is credit-ready now, in months or years down the road."
Now, 30 years later, the neighborhood is colorful — roundabouts are adorned with paintings, murals bedeck the sides of businesses and it's hard to find abandoned homes in the neighborhood's central area. There is still work to be done, but progress can be seen, Scott said.
As Brenda's grandson handed her the keys to their red-brick home they call "the big house," a look of peace and joy spread across her face.
"I knew there was a God and I would be blessed to get back in this house," Brenda said. "My prayers have been answered and I have been blessed — always blessed."
Brenda and her family will be moving back into their home next week following its inspection. Not everything is ready yet — countertops need to be sealed, and the back porch is sinking and in need of new concrete.
A few of the larger appliances are still needed — a stacked washer and dryer, refrigerator, microwave and range. Those interested in donating or helping with the finishing touches on the project can contact the Salt Lake Neighborhood Housing Services at: (801) 539-1590. Or for more information visit their Web site at: www.slnhs.org.