The Martinez family, Gerardo, Terri and five children, are looking forward to moving into their new Habitat for Humanity house.

This is the third story in a series examining families who have moved into Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity houses and how it changed their lives.

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Peace and contentment fill Terri Martinez as she sees her severely disabled 20-year-old son Matthew smile and laugh.

“That has always been my goal for him – that he’s happy – above anything else,” Terri said. 

At age 20, Matthew looks the same age as – or even younger than – his 12-year-old brother Joseph. When he was 5 months old, Terri witnessed Matthew’s first seizure. He has never spoken a complete sentence in his life.

Instead, he spoke single words at about age 4 – “ball,” “dog,” “Mama” and “baby” were those Matthew said before losing his verbal capabilities, Terri said.

Matthew shows some emotion as a sibling brings a nearly deflated green helium balloon across the room. It is among his favorite possessions, the Martinez family explains. Mirrors and ceiling fans also make him smile, Terri said – anything that revolves or reflects.

As the five Martinez siblings – dressed in their Sunday best following church services – sit around their living room with their parents, Terri and Gerardo, they are reflecting on a time of change. They giggle with Matthew as he holds his balloon.

Or, maybe they’re giggling because the weight on their shoulders feels lighter. In less than a month, they’ll be in a new house – just four walls, to most, but for some, it’s a change that represents gratefulness and hope.

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In 1993, Terri and Gerardo met through a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints single adults’ group in Toronto. After maintaining a long-distance friendship for nearly four years, the couple married in Salt Lake City nearly 14 years ago. Gerardo legally adopted Terri’s two children from her previous marriage soon after. 

Nine years ago, the family moved to Independence following a career change for Gerardo and bought a house just down the street from their current address at 3808 N. Delaware St. in Independence. The family sold the house to pay off some debt, Gerardo said, and they have rented the Delaware Street house for about eight years.

Gerardo, who provides the family’s sole means of income, works as a case manager for the nonprofit Mattie Rhodes Center in Kansas City. He helps families find resources for issues like employment, housing, disabilities and public assistance.

In February 2008, a Mattie Rhodes client needed help with housing and suggested Habitat for Humanity as a resource. Gerardo had previous knowledge of Habitat for Humanity, but he thought the organization only operated Habitat ReStore, a store outlet that accepts donated furniture and building materials for resale.

Gerardo, who is originally from Mexico and holds dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship, served as a Spanish-to-English translator for his client at a Kansas City Habitat for Humanity location. As he translated, Gerardo said he thought his own family might qualify because of income guidelines. 

Terri and Gerardo attended the required Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity home ownership courses, thinking to themselves, “Gosh, this is too good to be true. Could we qualify for this?”

“I really thought we were overqualified. I didn’t think we would make the cut,” Terri said. “I actually felt awkward being there because I felt like there were other people who were in more dire circumstances than we were.”

Amy Toney, the Truman Heritage operations manager, called the couple to the Habitat office one day in April 2008. Terri and Gerardo remember the unnerving conversation they shared while driving to the meeting. Rooted deeply in their faith, the family had frequently prayed on the matter, telling God, “If it was for us, we were happy about that, but if it was not, it was OK,” Terri said. “We understood that there was someone else who needed it more than we did.”

The Martinez couple prepared themselves for the news that they didn’t receive a house. Toney placed a letter in front of Terri and Gerardo, announcing their acceptance.

They cried.

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Matthew was diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome at age 4, a severe form of epilepsy characterized by frequent seizures and often accompanied by mental retardation. Until then, medical professionals had told Terri that her son had cerebral palsy, a group of disorders involving movement, learning, hearing, seeing and thinking because of problems with brain development.

On Sept. 20 – the date of Matthew’s 21st birthday – he will attend Lakeview Woods State School in Lee’s Summit for the final day because of age constraints. Terri plans for Matthew to live with her and Gerardo for the rest of his life.

Jessica Hamilton, an aide with Integrity Home Care, assists Matthew twice a day, five days a week, in dressing for school, getting on and off the school bus, feeding and bathing him in the evening.

He must rely on, but is not confined to, a wheelchair. Matthew’s scoliosis has progressed in three years – in last year alone, Terri said, he’s nearly lost the ability to walk.

The three girls – Emily, 7; Gabrielle, 9; and Grace, 11 – share a bedroom now. Joseph, 12, has his own room. In the basement, a quiet room with no windows has been converted into a bedroom for Matthew. (The oldest Martinez son, 22-year-old Christopher, lives independently in Blue Springs.) The slightest bit of light can interrupt Matthew’s already-difficult sleep cycle, Gerardo said.

The existing house at 3808 N. Delaware St. includes multiple electrical and plumbing problems, Gerardo said, as well as mold. As many times as professional cleaners have visited, the mold grows back – the condition has increased the children’s asthma and allergies, he said.

The new house at 115 S. Park Ave. – directly behind the former Independence Regional Health Center – provides a 2,200-square-foot space with five bedrooms – one for Terri and Gerardo; one for Joseph; one for Matthew; one for the three girls and one for the children’s home schooling. With Matthew’s future bedroom located on the ground floor, the family will no longer have to continue the “dangerous” process of moving him up and down the stairs, Terri said.

“That’s what we’re excited about,” she said, “and the bathroom is built to accommodate him.”

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All of the Martinez children, except for the youngest, Emily, attended public schools at one time. Today, Terri home schools Joseph and his three younger sisters.

“We have always felt that it was a very important thing for mom to be at home with kids,” Terri said, “and we just felt like whatever we had to sacrifice to do that ... we felt like it was something that we could feel good about, that we felt like we were doing what God would want us to do, which is important to us.” 

The family’s cash flow is limited because of a one-income household, as well as the children eating three meals a day at home, Terri said. Most of the children’s clothing is purchased at thrift stores. They receive a small allowance based on a family chore chart. 

“We sacrifice,” Terri said of making it work. “As a homemaker, it’s a full-time job for me because I do have to figure out to make this much money stretch this far.”

Terri and Gerardo plan to sign their home ownership papers on Wednesday, slowly moving their belongings into the new house through mid-February. Though the couple had previously owned homes, the sale of those houses was just enough to pay off debt and yielded zero net profit, Gerardo said. With the monthly mortgage payments projected to be lower than the family’s existing rent, Terri said the new home will create a greater cash flow, allowing the family to possibly save for their children’s college education. 

The South Park Avenue property includes a small creek behind the house and many trees. The family members are excited about growing their own garden in the backyard, as well as getting a family dog. “We want to have a little garden,” Gerardo said.

“A big garden,” Terri said, laughing, in correcting her husband.

The Martinez family also plans to build a little coup for 10 egg-laying hens because the family consumes so many eggs.

Gerardo joined the Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity board of directors in January 2009. Habitat staff members told him that they want homeowners’ representation to make improvements in the process. The Truman Heritage Habitat plans to reach out more to Independence’s Hispanic and Samoan communities.

The Martinez family has developed a close friendship with the Sua family, another Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity case featured in The Examiner last month. The father, David Sua, gives piano lessons to Joseph.  

“We’re very grateful for this opportunity because it’s going to help us accomplish goals that we have for our family that were difficult to see how they were going to take place,” Terri said. 

Gerardo said he wants to continue progressing in this life, a goal that will be made possible with his family’s new home.

“We just feel so blessed and grateful that we were selected,” he said, “that we are going to have our own place – we can create change, expand, invite others.”