A gift of a house that didn't come from under a tree - it was a tree

Posted: December 24, 2012

AT THIS TIME last year, pieces of Sintayehu Garoma's North Philadelphia home were a tourist attraction in Manhattan.

People came from all over the world to stare up at what one day would become the frame for Garoma's house and the foundation for the life he always had dreamed of in America.

The Garoma home, on Morse Street near 19th, is one of two houses in Philadelphia that were made, in part, with wood from the 2011 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and with help from Habitat for Humanity.

"When you find your house is made from a tree from Christmas it makes you double-happy," Garoma said.

For the last five years, Tishman Speyer, the company that owns Rockefeller Center, has donated its famous Christmas trees for use in Habitat for Humanity homes, said Keith Douglas, managing director of Rockefeller Center.

"It's a great way to give back and have the tree live on in a way that's significant to a family's life," Douglas said.

Once the 30,000 lights come down from the branches, and after the star with 25,000 Swarovski crystals is pulled from the top, the tree trunk is milled into lumber used to make Habitat homes.

The lumber is donated to a Habitat chapter in the state where the tree once was rooted. Previous trees have found new life in homes in Connecticut and New York. Because the 2011 tree came from the Keller home in Mifflinville, Columbia County, it was donated back to Pennsylvania and to Habitat for Humanity of Philadelphia.

Debra Keller said the Rockefeller Center gardener was out scouting for a tree when he spotted the 74-foot Norway Spruce in her mother's yard from his car on Route 80 last March.

Keller, who takes her granddaughters to Rockefeller Center every year at Christmas, said she had envisioned the 75-year-old tree as New York City's holiday centerpiece.

"There was no question in our mind that it was destined to be there at some time," she said. "I'm a great believer in what is meant to be is meant to be."

But little could she imagine that the tree also was destined for something greater - two volunteers with Habitat and Tishman Speyer used the Rockefeller tree wood to build Garoma's house and rehab a vacant house on Priscilla Street near Penn, in Germantown, said Corrinne O'Connell, associate executive director for Habitat Philadelphia.

Each family was required to put in 350 hours of sweat equity working on their own house and on other Habitat homes, O'Connell said. Once the houses were complete, the families began the purchasing process from Habitat with a zero-interest mortgage.

At the house on Priscilla Street, the Rockefeller Center wood is visible on an exposed banister inside. It's stamped with the 2011 Rockefeller Center tree logo, O'Connell said.

The three-story rowhouse is now home to the Wallace-Bassett family of six, who had been living in an apartment covered in black mold before moving into the house in July. They declined multiple requests for interviews.

Garoma's home, where he lives with his wife, Birhane Hailu, and their 3-year-old daughter Sifin, was the 165th house built by Habitat Philadelphia and was dedicated Dec. 15. The Rockefeller tree was used in the frame of the two-story, three-bedroom house.

Garoma and Hailu, both 32, came to Philadelphia in 2008 from Ethiopia after Garoma won Ethiopia's U.S. visa lottery.

"We were so happy, we didn't think it was real at first," he said. "We didn't believe it until I got a letter from the U.S. Embassy."

Reality soon set in, though: Garoma, a college biology teacher, and Hailu, a nurse, were unable to find work in their fields in Philadelphia because their degrees did not transfer.

"Our expectation was high because not everybody gets the chance to come," he said. "But I have to take whatever job I got. I have to work. You have to pay bills."

Garoma took on three jobs, including one at a 7-Eleven and one as a parking attendant.

When he learned about Habitat through a friend, Garoma, Hailu and their daughter were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Southwest Philadelphia where the stove, the plumbing and most of the electrical sockets did not work.

"They were so surprised at the way we were living," Garoma said of the Habitat staffers.

Garoma worked on the house while also working his three jobs.

"I started working Saturdays, whenever I had the free time I just did it," he said. "People were happy to help, and in this country, where time is money, they sacrificed and helped me a lot."

Garoma said he'll always remember where his house came from - from the Keller family who donated their tree to Rockefeller Center, to the Center, which donated the wood, and from the Habitat volunteers, who donated their time.

"You don't forget it," he said.


Stephanie Farr on twitter: @FarFarrAway

Blog: PhillyConfidential.com

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