Archive for Monday, February 5, 2001

Cuban emigre realizes American dream

February 5, 2001

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— Nettie Benitez's first attempt at building a home ended when a builder gambled away her $65,000 life savings at casinos.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers she has a nicer home than she ever dreamed of building: A blue house with stone and wood trim on a new lot. The well-insulated house, light blue inside and blue down to the baseboards, has three bedrooms, a fireplace, central air, tile floors throughout, a side deck and new appliances.

And all of it was donated.

Benitez, a Cuban emigre who became a U.S. citizen in 1969, played host to a celebration Saturday in her new home for the people who helped make her home a reality.

"I feel like I'm dreaming, still," Benitez said. "Every day, I thank God for this house. Now I know what heaven looks like. This is heaven."

Benitez's good fortune came thanks to the group Christmas in October, whose leaders became aware of her plight in 1999, after the builder, Thomas James, pleaded guilty in Clay County Court to stealing by deceit. He is in prison.

"My daughter read about it in the paper and called me and said, 'You've got to do something for this woman,' " said Dick Miller, a Christmas in October co-founder.

The group had restored about 5,000 houses over the years but had never built one. Tom Redmond, a Christmas in October volunteer, led the effort.

Work on the house began in August 1999. Benitez moved in last week. The landscaping is all that remains to be done.

Redmond's biggest selling point in getting donations was Benitez, who has a smile and a hug for everyone.

"Nettie is an infectious person," Redmond said. "I'd bring people up here and they'd meet her. ... Man, she'd put a hook in 'em like a bass."

Benitez fed lunch to every worker who helped as the house was built. She fed them all again Saturday, with Cuban delicacies capped by a cake decorated with a likeness of her house. Under the picture of the house was written in icing, "God Bless My Blue House."

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