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A HOME BUILT FROM THE HEART PROVIDENCE HOUSE VOLUNTEERS NAIL DOWN A DREAM

THE RED-BRICK house, with its two porches and white pillars, looks much like its West Side neighbors.

But something different is going on at this Breckenridge Street address.

For months, volunteer workers by the dozens have painted, stripped doors, stuccoed walls and hauled out debris.

With their hammers and saws, they turned the two-family house into a one-family, barrier-free house.

Soon, Providence House will open its doors to eight people, four of them disabled, who will complete the transformation, this time from house to home.

Although Providence House may appear to be like other community residences for the disabled with its elevator and wide doorways, backers say there is a significant difference. Here there are no paid staff members, as there are at other group homes.

"In other group homes, staff people work their shift and come and go, but they aren't the heart of the household," said Charlene Johnson of People Inc., an agency that serves mentally retarded adults. "Here the folks who aren't handicapped will be part of the house, and there won't be a distinction."

A residence that operates under these principles may be the first of its type locally, said Ms. Johnson, People Inc.'s family support services coordinator.

"I want us to be a group of people that watches out for one another," said Sister Rose Mary Cauley, director.

"This is going to be my home. I can't go home at night and forget this place."

Sister Cauley and Tracey Aldrow, who have lived together in an apartment for nearly three years, will be among its first residents.

The idea for Providence House was born in 1981 when several people met informally to see if it was feasible. It gained momentum in 1989 when the General Mills Foundation donated $25,000 toward the purchase price and the Margaret Wendt Foundation added $25,000 for an elevator.

A year ago, Habitat for Humanity offered to purchase a house and supply labor and reno vation expertise, marking the first time Habitat has worked collaboratively with another agency.

"This never would have happened without Habitat," said Sister Cauley.

On Saturday, Sister Cauley will participate in a dedication ceremony in which Ronald Talboys, president of Habitat for Humanity/Buffalo, will transfer ownership rights to Providence House. Other guests at the open house include Reatha King of the General Mills Foundation, Minneapolis; and Clive Rainey of Habitat International, Americus, Ga.

This month, high schoolers from Ohio and Illinois, who are Habitat volunteers, worked on the house along with a lengthy list of local volunteers from churches, colleges, youth groups, as well as individuals and families who offered their services.

But Gerry Murak, president of the board of directors, says the roll call of helpers only begins to tell the story.

When he talks about community response, Murak gets so revved up it's hard to stop him. He tells about volunteers disassembling a three-story chimney and chipping mortar off the bricks so they could be bartered for lumber.

About youngsters picking up litter in the neighborhood.

And about a man who drove in from Toronto because he wanted to be part of the project.

And a real estate broker who made it his personal mission to find a house, then took a cut in his commission and persuaded the seller to lower the price.

Organizers considered at least a dozen houses before choosing the Breckenridge site.

"We kept a checklist, and this was the one that met both our needs and our dreams," said Sister Cauley. The seven-bedroom, 14-room house has a chapel, a laundry area and a craft room.

Providence House will make interest-free mortgage payments to Habitat, just as other families do, Murak said.

"That's what gives this the continuity and family concept," he said. "If we treated this any differently, it wouldn't be family."

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