The home of Yolanda Castañeda House holds many warm memories, especially from a magical week back in 2000 when her family saw their home in Wilmington, CA being built in a week by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles (Habitat LA) volunteers at the first Hollywood for Habitat for Humanity build.
Becoming a Habitat LA homeowner was already a special event for her family, who eagerly anticipated moving into their own home and escaping life in violence-ridden public housing. But, it took on an almost magical atmosphere when Hollywood celebrities, frequent supporters of Habitat LA, and thousands of volunteers arrived to assist with the one-week build.
For Yolanda, this build 16 years ago, especially brings back strong memories of her late father, Luis Castañeda, who worked so hard on building the family’s new home alongside two-time Academy Award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman.
“He was such a phenomenal person,” said Yolanda, now married and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter in North Carolina. “He and my father really hit it off. I remember them on the roof putting on shingles one day, and he and my dad sang Mexican folk songs as they worked.”
Yolanda, who was 20 at the time of the project, said, “Everyday it seemed there was a different person from Hollywood.” She saw the late Robin Williams working on another house, while the cast of “Days of Our Lives” arrived to work on the 20-house project.
“I remember thinking how cool this was to have someone like Dustin Hoffman here with us participating in our new beginning,” she said. “And there were other volunteers, some from all over the world, who also helped build the houses.”
Her parents, Luis and Juana Castañeda, had come to Southern California from Mexico many years ago to seek a new life. Luis did iron work in the Port of Los Angeles to support the family that had grown to seven kids.
Unable to afford their own house, they were forced to live in public housing in Wilmington for many years. Juana was determined to find another way of life after seeing drug use and violence going on so often just outside their front door. Twice her sons were targets of violence in the neighborhood.
“She was tired of seeing it, tired of us being victims of the cycle of poverty there,” said Yolanda.
Then her mother found out about Habitat’s ambitious building project proposed for Wilmington. She had Yolanda, then attending L.A. Harbor College, complete the paperwork to apply for one of the houses there. Following interviews and more paperwork, the Castañeda family was selected and on their way to becoming homeowners.
Yolanda didn’t immediately realize that the week-long blitz build would have such a showbiz touch to it. But soon Hoffman was there helping as her family began fulfilling the required 500 hours of sweat equity on their future home and other Habitat projects.
“It was so special to see my parents’ dream come alive,” Yolanda said, recalling the joy they shared with their new house. “I especially remember my father working so hard on the house — and he kept working on it even after we moved in. He got great joy being able to work on it and make it better for all of us.”
When she now visits her mother from North Carolina at their Habitat House — that’s the way they always refer to it — it helps rekindle fond memories. “It always reminds me of my dad’s life and the joy and passion he had to make things better for all of us,” she said.
She is a perfect example of what a new house and homeownership can do. Families who help build and then move into their own houses also get great benefits from a safer, healthier environment. But it is so often the children, such as Yolanda, who are empowered with ambition and enthusiasm as they grow older and go on to become productive adults and assets to their communities.
“I just feel it was such a great experience, especially to see the joy on my folks’ faces,” she recalled. “It is such a blessing that I still feel 16 years later.”
Hollywood for Habitat for Humanity continues as an entertainment industry program of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, assisting in publicity and fundraising, as well as working on various builds throughout the year. It was founded by screenwriter and director, Randall Wallace, the same year as the Wilmington Blitz Build.
“Habitat for Humanity is a perpetual motion miracle; everyone who receives, gives, and everyone who gives, receives,” Wallace said. “If you want to live complacent and uninspired, stay away from Habitat. Come close to Habitat and it will change you and make you part of something that changes the world.”
Story by Joe Blackstock. Joe is a longtime supporter of Habitat for Humanity and retired reporter. His most recent position was with the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.