Tess Kessinger

Tess Kessinger, research assistant at the Frazier Rehab Center, is working with the New Albany/Floyd County Habitat for Humanity on a customized home to accommodate her needs. | SUBMITTED PHOTO

CLARKSVILLE — Tess Kessinger is about to open a new chapter in her life.

Through the help of the Floyd County Habitat for Humanity, the 46-year-old Palmyra resident will soon be a homeowner, and living out on her own again for the first time in a decade.

Ground was broken for the development recently on a lot in south Clarksville for Kessinger, with a target completion time of spring. It’s also a groundbreaking project for Habitat, as they work closely with Kessinger to build the first ADA-compliant Habitat the local organization has undertaken.

In February 2006, while in Pittsburgh for a Super Bowl party, Kessinger was involved in a car accident that caused a major tetraplegic spinal injury and left her partially paralyzed. She’s had five surgeries to restore some arm mobility, but it’s still limited and she uses a wheelchair.

After the accident, Kessinger spent five weeks in a hospital in Pittsburgh and five months as an in-patient at Frazier Rehab, before moving into the addition her parents, Ann and Jerry Kessinger, had been building as a family room at their Palmyra home. When she had the accident, her father started making modifications to the layout.

“When you’re out on your own, you don’t expect to suddenly be back in with your parents,” she said. “That’s not what we grow up to want. But it was necessary at the time.”

She said living in the quiet area had been a change for her, after having lived in Terre Haute and Indianapolis more recently. But living with her parents was the right place to heal, she said.

“It’s quiet, and there is a lot of wildlife,” she said.

But she’s also ready to regain some independence with her new spot in Clarksville. She applied and was accepted into the program in 2014.

“I was excited and nervous at the same time,” she said. “Because it means having more independence and having what I like to call a more ‘normal life.’”

When she was accepted, Kessinger was on a list with several other families who had been accepted for the program. Habitat has worked for the past two years to gather funding and find the right property.

“I believe it kind of happened when it was supposed to,” she said, of the timing. “I’m not sure I was strong enough physically or maybe even mentally before. Now that I’ve had practice and know the routine, with respect what I can and cannot do, I feel a little more confident going into the situation now.”

TAKING OWNERSHIP

Habitat for Humanity families and individuals are selected based on need and the ability to pay the mortgage of the home once its completed.

Jerry Leonard, executive director for the Floyd County Habitat for Humanity, which is building the home, said this means the price of the house is 30 percent or less of the homebuyer’s monthly income, with usually is a 20-year, zero-interest loan.

“While they all have their own special stories, it really all boils down to everyone has the right to have decent affordable housing,” he said. “And if you look at the world today, affordable housing, even places to rent, are becoming fewer and fewer. It’s getting harder and harder for folks to have some of that.”

As part of the program, the buyers also attend regular meetings and get education on home ownership. They are required to put in a certain number of sweat equity hours on other properties and their own home.

In Kessinger’s case, she put in about 100 hours through helping contact people who could assist — restaurants to donate food to volunteers, help with the roof and insulation — and her father put in about 300 hours over the past two years, working on the homes.

“They help build their own house and they take pride in that — the sense of accomplishment; they were part of the build,” Leonard said. “And they are able to pay their mortgage because it’s affordable to them. That’s giving back a sense of independence a sense of pride and put them on the right path.”

And Kessinger hasn’t just been helping in this way — she’s been on the front lines with the Habitat team, working with them to make sure they understand what she needs in a home.

Light switch height, cabinet height and the width of doors has to be considered, for instance. Leonard said they are planning a bathroom that’s kind of a walk-in shower, sliding doors and lots of open space for her to move around the house freely.

Leonard said while some things, like the grade and width of the wheelchair ramp, are regulated, many others are things Kessinger has helped educate them on. A lot of these things, she said she found out from other people with disabilities and the staff where she works 15 hours a week as a research assistant for Frazier Rehab.

“It’s my house, it’s part of my obligation to make sure I help,” she said. “It’s a huge accomplishment. For both me and Habitat. It [can be] an ordeal to meet the needs because they are specific.”

And while she’s been a homeowner before, this is something she hopes she will feel more ownership in.

“This is definitely more from the ground up,” she said.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Habitat for Humanity is able to operate mainly on grants and volunteer work helps keep the cost low for the buyer.

For this home, Messer Construction dug the foundation and IMI donated 50 yards of concrete for the house. The Ogle Foundation, Wells-Fargo, The Horseshoe Foundation and the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana were major contributors.

Leonard said they’re at about 70 percent of the funding needed to complete the home.

One huge help, he said, came from the Town of Clarksville, who approved financing the demolition of the previous home on the lot that had burned earlier in the year — a cost of about $9,700.

“They’ve been wonderful to work with,” Leonard said. “It’s people like that that help keep our mission going forward. Without them we couldn’t be where we are today.”

Clarksville Redevelopment Director Dylan Fisher said the house will be a good thing on several levels.

“It is a good opportunity for the town and the house is going to be very nice,” he said. “They’ve really put a lot of effort into it. Jerry and his team really want to make sure they’re getting a quality product not only for [Kessinger] but the neighborhood.”

He’s organizing a team of town staff to help with a build day in January, and there are still plenty of spots available in the season for teams or donors to help give Tess her new home.

“It’s a great organization,” Kessinger said about Habitat. “It definitely takes a village, but people seem to be very willing to help. It’s the first time I’ve been on the receiving end so it’s a little different from this side of things. They’ve been great.”

And Leonard said they're very happy to get this opportunity.

 “She's an amazing person,” Leonard said, about Kessinger. “She just continues to look forward. She seems to me to be the type that grabs life by the tail.

 “Being able to do this for her and get her a home, is exciting.”

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