For more than a year, Synobia Chan, a single mom, was fierce in her determination to do whatever it took to build her own home.
On Thursday, she’ll open the door to her house, which she helped build through Habitat for Humanity Mid-Yellowstone Valley.
To make it happen, Chan worked a full-time graveyard shift for a telecommunications company and two afternoon shifts at her part-time job at McDonald’s at the same time she put in 150 hours of sweat equity with construction crews for Habitat for Humanity and took 30 hours of classes on personal finance and homebuying issues.
Some days, she got off her 10-hour shift at 11 a.m. and went directly to the restaurant, where she worked until 5 p.m., then went to her two-hour classes. A day care provider, whom she has relied on for a dozen years, helped make those hours possible.
Chan, the mother of children ages 13, 9 and 3, has also had custody of her 16-year-old sister since the death of their mother three years ago.
“I knew I always wanted to be a homeowner, but it wasn’t something I thought could be a reality for me, to be able to get it done, being by myself, especially with the economy,” she said.
Her desire to own a home kicked into overdrive after she got a 30-day notice to vacate their rental property. Chan, who is 30, had never before been homeless, but for two months, she couldn’t find another place to rent.
“I felt homeless, because I didn’t have a place for my kids to go,” she said.
At first, they stayed in a friend’s three-bedroom home, which already was home to five other children. Later, they shifted to a relative’s four-bedroom home, which also already had five children. They put their stuff in a storage shed and lived out of three-drawer plastic storage containers.
The five-bedroom home she helped build through Habitat for Humanity sits behind Newman School. Her children helped make color choices and decisions about flooring.
“It’s going to be ours to call home. It will be something I can pass on to my children, something permanent so we would never have to go through not having a place to live again.”
Chan grew up in Sheridan, Wyo., and moved to Billings in 1996, when she was a freshman at Senior High. She was pregnant at 16 but graduated high school in 2000 while she worked full time at Burger King.
For 10 years, she worked at fast-food restaurants to support her family.
“I’ve always worked, if it’s not one job, it’s two jobs, for the last 15 years,” she said. For the past five years, she has worked at Level 3 Communications, formerly Global Crossing, where she is a voice technician, directing trouble calls about phone lines and fiber optic cables.
For three or four months, she worked 30 hours at McDonald’s on top of her full-time job, but her children begged her to cut back. She now works two five-hour shifts at the restaurant.
When she applied to the Habitat for Humanity program in September 2010, she didn’t know how she was going to fit in the required sweat equity hours on the construction crew.
“My goal was just to get out there and get it done, even if my house wasn’t going to be the next one,” she said.
The process typically takes 18 months to two years to complete. But the time line shortened considerably when another family dropped out of the program right before construction started on the home, which was sponsored by Faith Chapel. Plans were quickly redrawn to switch from three bedrooms to five bedrooms.
“They all had faith in me. They knew that I deserved what I had been working for. No one had any doubts in me,” Chan said.
Single parents must put in 250 hours of sweat equity on home construction, but 100 of those hours can be donated by friends, co-workers, or other Habitat families who have exceeded their required hours. Chan finished her hours before Thanksgiving.
Many of those hours were done before construction even started on her own home, said Dan Yazak. He and his wife, Sharon, helped mentor Chan through the program.
“With someone like Synobia, you don’t really mentor, you just stay out of the way,” Yazak said.
“We had a wall-raising where we were shoveling snow off the flooring,” Yazak said.
Despite harsh weather and other hurdles, Chan kept her positive attitude and went out of her way to introduce herself to volunteers at the job site, he said.
Though a program called Families Saving for Tomorrow, run by the Human Resources Development Council, Chan saved $500 to put toward a down payment on the house. Her savings were matched three to one. A federal grant makes up half the money for the matching funds, while the other half is privately matched through First Interstate Bank and other foundations.
“I was very impressed with her work ethic,” said Hanna Pancheau, asset development coordinator at HRDC. “Even though she would come to our classes after working two long shifts, she was very much willing to learn.”
Once the family is in their home, her children — Andres, Monique and Elijah, in order of age — along with her sister, Shayla, are eager to decorate their own rooms. Chan intends to fence the yard and build a deck where they can barbecue and do other family things.
The house is the 57th built by Habitat for Humanity in the local area since 1992. Faith Chapel was the major sponsor, donating $25,000 for its construction. The Sample Foundation donated $10,000, and the lot was bought by an anonymous donor.