Union Democrat staff

Although it won't open for business in Sonora for some months, Lowe's is already proving itself a good neighbor and a generous member of our community.

Generous, in fact, may be an understatement.

The national home improvement store chain this month awarded Tuolumne

County's Habitat for Humanity branch a grant of $400,000. The cash has

paid off a loan on 4.5 acres in Columbia, proposed for a 36-unit

affordable home development.

For Habitat, this is a giant step toward realizing a dream that began to take shape last year.

"Now every dollar we raise is going directly toward building

affordable homes for Tuolumne County families," said Betsy Harden,

Habitat's local director.

The Columbia acreage, which Habitat bought in a 2009 foreclosure

sale, is an already-approved subdivision complete with water, sewer,

power and the Tuolumne County go-ahead for construction of 36

townhomes. A $399,000 zero-interest loan from Habitat International,

the local organization's parent, made the purchase possible.

But until the one-year bridge loan was paid off, actual building remained tantalizingly out of reach.

Thanks to Lowe's, that has all changed. With clear title to the

property, Habitat has turned its attention toward construction. The

equity it now holds in the Columbia property will enable the chapter to

more easily secure grants and financing for that purpose.

According to Harden, county-required site work is now under way and

the construction of the first duplex unit could begin as early as

September. She added that the family selection process will begin

shortly, and there have been numerous inquires from would-be


"The need for affordable housing is still here," said Harden.

Lowe's, as its longtime relationship with Habitat International

evidences, recognizes this need. Not only that, said Harden, but

company officials are also aware of the community's extensive financial

and volunteer support for Habitat's local efforts.

"It's like Lowe's is not only a partner with Habitat, but with our whole community," she said.

It may be a good fit: In 2009, Lowe's contributed some $30 million

to support community and education projects in the United States. It

also encourages volunteerism through Local Heroes, a company-wide

employee volunteer initiative.

Habitat's Tuolumne County chapter, of course, depends heavily on

volunteers, having a registry of some 500, about 60 active workers and

a volunteer partner in Sonora High School's Middle College program.

The program's students, who attend classes at Columbia College,

have collectively spent hundreds of hours clearing weeds and debris

from Habitat's Columbia site, and were servers at a recent fundraising


If all this sounds familiar, it should. In many ways volunteers are the lifeblood of our Mother Lode communities.

That spirit was celebrated last week at a volunteer appreciation

luncheon at the Sonora Elks Lodge. Hosted by Sierra Nonprofit Services,

the celebration honored Tuolumne County's thousands of volunteers and

gave special awards to a prolific and precocious few.

Recipients included Jerry Rose (Extra Mile Award, for organizing

Groveland's free breakfasts), Center for a Nonviolent Community and

Vietnam Veterans of America (Ed Minium Legacy Award, for responding to

immediate needs with volunteer action), Mounted Dream Center (for

exemplary monitoring of volunteers), Sonora High School junior

Elizabeth "Ludie" Olenchalk (Never Too Young Award, given to a

volunteer age 16 or younger) and Cutler Segerstrom Insurance Agency

(Community Excellence Award, for supporting volunteerism among its


Finally, former Sonora Area Foundation board president Celeste Boyd

was given the Lifetime Achievement Award for a career of service

spanning decades, organizations and causes.

Although Boyd's contributions date back years and Lowe's are brand

new, both are prime examples of a spirit that defines and enriches our