Home for the holiday: Morgan County family celebrates first Thanksgiving at home
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
From the couch in the den — her favorite room in the house — Muajani Stitts watched as her 7-year-old nephew sat in his wheelchair, quietly singing along to the countries of the world song playing on the TV and flipping through a book about the human body.
“I am thankful to God and the Habitat program every day – every single day. It’s been a long and difficult journey. This house has changed our lives,” Muajani Stitts said. “The possibilities for us are endless.”
This Thanksgiving — Muajani and M.J. Stitts’ first Thanksgiving in their new home built by Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County — the blessings are too numerous to count.
“I’m thankful for everything,” M.J. said, spreading his arms wide and smiling at his aunt.
The journey that led Muajani and M.J. to their Hartselle home began more than six years ago at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. There, doctors diagnosed 2-month-old M.J., who was admitted to the hospital for failure to thrive, with a collapsed lung and congenital myasthenia gravis, characterized by a weakening of his voluntary muscles.
During M.J.’s 11-month-stay at the hospital, Muajani, a certified nursing assistant, found her calling. She sat by M.J.’s bedside while he recovered from a feeding tube and tracheostomy tube surgery and attended vent classes with her brother, M.J.’s father.
After hospital and Department of Human Resources officials made home visits and recommended M.J. live with Muajani, the then–32-year-old woman – who valued her independence and freedom – opened her door and life to her nephew.
“I had no plans of taking him home with me. I was just there to help. They said either I had to take him, or he would go into foster care,” Muajani said. “This wasn’t my plan, but I’m glad it was God’s. M.J. has made me a more patient, caring and loving person.”
Three years ago, as issues with flooding and mold appeared in their two-bedroom rental apartment, which M.J. struggled to navigate in his wheelchair, Muajani sought help. One of the nurses who stays with M.J. while Muajani works mentioned Habitat for Humanity.
“I don’t like to ask people for help. When I got M.J., my mom told me, ‘Now you have to humble yourself. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help,’” Muajani said. “She was right. I have learned to ask for help and, because I did, we have a house.”
Finding a home
A non–profit, faith-based organization, Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County builds homes for families in need — for single parents working two jobs, adults caring for children with disabilities and senior citizens living on a fixed income.
In simple terms, Habitat for Humanity offers people an opportunity for a future.
“We’ve seen kids get to go to college that maybe wouldn’t have been able to. We’ve seen parents go back to college. We’ve seen people be able to save for retirement. We see people’s lives change,” said Landis Griffin, director of Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County.
After qualifying for a Habitat home, Muajani attended budget classes and homeowner education courses, where she learned how to fix holes in the wall and identify plumbing problems. She also volunteered at other Habitat for Humanity build sites, where she learned how to cut out windows and bend siding, and agreed to a 30-year, no-interest mortgage.
Work on the Stittses’ home — the 92nd home built by Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County — began the second week of March with volunteers from Western Kentucky University. Volunteers wrote messages of “God bless all who enter here,” “May the peace of the Lord be with you always” and “I will put my trust in you, O Lord” on the home’s wooden frame now hidden by drywall and paint.
“If I could say anything to the volunteers, it would be ‘thank you,’” Muajani said. “When I couldn’t get over here to work on my own house, the volunteers would be here, making sure we would have our home. I don’t know if I have the words to say just how thankful I am.”
Days after the student volunteers returned to Kentucky, the coronavirus caused businesses and schools to shut down and temporarily halted construction on the Stittses’ three-bedroom, two-bath, handicap-accessible home.
Like many organizations, Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County faced coronavirus-related setbacks, including being forced to cancel both of its fundraisers and cut back the number of houses built from four to two.
At the same time Habitat for Humanity experienced a decrease in funds, the local organization saw an increase in interest.
“Our calls have doubled. As people are spending more time in their houses, they are realizing they need to make a change, or they need something better for their kids. We are getting a lot of people who are living with family members and need a home of their own,” Griffin said. “I think now, more than ever, home has a very important role in everyone’s lives.”
Reach for the stars
The Stittses moved into their Habitat for Humanity home — the one big enough for M.J.’s rock collection, motorized wheelchair and aquarium with fish named Orange, Blue Orange, Black, Blackie, Blackest and Henry — in August.
He decorated his room with posters of outer space, glow-in-the-dark stars and a moon.
“Look at the phases of the moon,” the second-grader, who attends classes at Crestline Elementary School remotely, said excitedly, using a remote to control the moon mounted to the wall. “There is crescent, first quarter, gibbous and full. Don’t you just love this room?”
On her phone, Griffin watches the videos Muajani sends of M.J. talking about the planets and reciting the countries.
“They send us videos and pictures constantly. They sent us one video showing how M.J. could get all the way through the house on his own,” Griffin said. “It brings me a lot of joy to see how happy a house, something so many of us take for granted, can make somebody. They are just so grateful.”
For more information on how to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County, visit morganhabitat.org.