September 13, 2019

Families’ dreams come true thanks to a priest’s vision and a group’s commitment

Alma Figueroa, right, shares her plans for the backyard of her family’s home with Suzanne Thompson, executive director of Hearts & Hands of Indiana, and Paul Corsaro, one of the founding members of the organization dedicated to giving hope and houses to low-income families on the near-west side of Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Alma Figueroa, right, shares her plans for the backyard of her family’s home with Suzanne Thompson, executive director of Hearts & Hands of Indiana, and Paul Corsaro, one of the founding members of the organization dedicated to giving hope and houses to low-income families on the near-west side of Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

As they sat next to each other, Alma Figueroa and Paul Corsaro flashed fabulous smiles at different moments.

Figueroa glowed as she recalled the day when her family moved into a house that they felt, for the first time, they could truly call their home.

“It was 11 days before last Christmas,” said the mother of 4-year-old twin girls, Camila and Delilah, and a 1-year-old son, Abraham. “We decided since it was so close to Christmas, we wanted it to seem like a Christmas story. We dressed the two girls up as elves, and Abraham was in a little Santa suit. When we walked into the house, Christian and I just cried. Then we said a prayer. We didn’t think we could do this without God.”

Corsaro’s best smile came moments later when he talked about 15 of his classmates from the 1961 graduating class of the former Sacred Heart High School in Indianapolis—classmates who came together 10 years ago to pour their talents, money and commitment into forming a grassroots group called Hearts & Hands of Indiana, an organization dedicated to giving hope and houses to low-income families in a struggling area of Indianapolis.

“When we were in high school, we came from different backgrounds,” Corsaro said. “Some were athletes, some were scholars. We got in trouble, and we had a good time, but we stayed the course.

“The nuns and priests taught us to help people. Jesus was on this Earth helping the poor, the unfortunate. It’s really satisfying to help with God’s game plan. I’m really proud of this group.”

Moments later, Figueroa and Corsaro stood together on the front porch of her family’s home—the one that Hearts & Hands helped to make possible. This time, their smiles were focused on each other.

“I think the world of them,” Figueroa says about Corsaro and the Hearts & Hands group. “They’ve changed my family’s situation and so many families’ situations.”

A vision of hope

The front porch of Figueroa’s home looks out on the near-westside Indianapolis neighborhood where Father John McCaslin had a vision more than 10 years ago.

At the time, Father McCaslin was the pastor of nearby St. Anthony and Holy Trinity parishes. As he drove through the area, he saw the vacant lots and abandoned houses that scarred the neighborhood. He also noticed the prostitutes and drug dealers there. He also saw an opportunity to make a difference. He just needed a group of people to help him.

That connection came when Father McCaslin was at a funeral and saw Tom Egold, a member of the 1961 graduating class of Sacred Heart High School.

The two men had known each other at St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis when Father McCaslin was an associate pastor there and Egold was president of the parish council. As they talked at the funeral, Father McCaslin told Egold about his vision to revive the struggling areas of his parishes by forming an organization that would buy and rebuild homes for low‑income families—an approach he viewed as a form of evangelization. He asked Egold if he could help.

The former Sacred Heart classmates had their challenge. Within months, they formed Hearts & Hands. And in May of 2010, a single mother and her two sons moved into a home that had been purchased, gutted and rebuilt by the former classmates—with the mother paying a monthly mortgage payment significantly less than the amount she previously paid in rent.

“To date, we have purchased and completed rehabilitation on 14 properties that have been sold to individuals and families who now have affordable, stable homes,” Corsaro noted. “Two houses are currently in progress, and four will be completed and sold in 2019, which puts us on track to meet one of our primary goals of our 2017-2021 strategic plan—four houses per year.

“Hearts & Hands currently has 29 families in the cue to gain home ownership through our program. These hard-working families are the people who can strengthen, stabilize, and add permanency and vibrancy to the community, if given the opportunity.”

The Figueroa family has seized that opportunity.

‘This is really happening!’

Since they were married, Alma and Christian Figueroa have faced the turmoil of living in an apartment infested with bed bugs, having most of their belongings taken during a break-in, and getting out of a housing contract that would have taken most of their combined income. Yet when they went to a Hearts & Hands’ open house in 2017, the members of St. Anthony Parish started to dream again and prepare to become homeowners.

“We would drive by this house, and we would start to daydream about it,” Alma said as she sat in her living room on a recent afternoon. “It’s right next to the park, and it’s close to St. Anthony School. I don’t think we slept the night before we moved in—‘This is really happening!’

“I was excited about this house. I was excited for our family. I just thought we were complete.”

Christian told her, “This is the first place that hasn’t felt strange. It felt right.”

The family has the same feeling about the neighborhood.

“Ten years ago, my parents were wary of us being out in the neighborhood,” Alma said. “There were a lot of abandoned homes. Now look at all the changes. I love the neighborhood. All of our neighbors are friendly. It’s becoming like a community for us. Everyone seems excited, and they want to get to know one another.”

As she talked, joy beamed on Figueroa’s face, which led to a warm smile from Corsaro.

“It’s very gratifying,” he said. “We’ve been able to help a young family acquire a house. They’re building equity. And it’s gratifying to look at how the neighborhood has changed. We’ve been able to reduce some of the drug problems in the community, too.”

‘It feels like home’

Corsaro knows there are still challenges: “More than one in three near-westside residents are living in poverty, with almost one-half of households earning annual incomes of less than $25,000. This leads to a neighborhood of abandoned and dilapidated homes.”

He also knows the hope and the promise that comes with home ownership—from increased involvement in the community to improvements in psychological and physical well-being.

“When a person owns a home, it’s more likely their child will become successful and go on in their education,” he said.

Most of all, Corsaro knows the importance of a Catholic education in his life and the lives of his Sacred Heart classmates.

“The nuns and the priests showed us the values and principles of life,” said Corsaro, a member of St. Barnabas Parish.

“One of the things that is really satisfying to me is that the original 15 called on other classmates and people in the community, and it’s gotten bigger every year. We’ve also had two people from [the former] Holy Trinity Parish from the beginning. And we now have volunteers all over the city. We plan to be here for a while.”

That original group—now in their mid-70s—is a constant source of inspiration, said Suzanne Thompson, executive director of Hearts & Hands.

“They built the organization from the ground up, into a working non-profit,” said Thompson, a member of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis. “They wore many hats: rehab work, setting strategy, building relationships, keeping the books, raising money, and taking out the trash. Ten years ago, they started out as a group of retired friends and became the hearts and hands of the organization. For that, we are forever blessed.”

The Figueroas count the group among their blessings—for what they have provided for their family.

“The greatest part of owning our home is to see our kids flourish,” Figueroa said. “When we moved in, the girls took off running everywhere. They were having such a good time. It still feels perfect. It’s close to the girls’ school at St. Anthony. It’s close to my parents.”

She smiled one more time as she gave her ultimate compliment to Hearts & Hands.

“It feels like home.” †

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