Tiffany Smith doesn't cook, but she's scrambling to learn some tips quickly so that she can have Christmas Eve dinner for her family and a few friends in her new Mount Pleasant home.
"I'm not a very good cook, but I'm going to figure it out," she said. "All I know is, we're having dinner here."
Smith, 29, and her three children -- Jeremiah, 10; Isaiah, 8; and Leilani, 1 -- moved earlier this month into a Kent Street house built in conjunction with East Cooper Habitat for Humanity, East Cooper Breakfast Rotary Club and a handful of other organizations.
"My friend kept pushing me to apply, and I kept saying, 'It wouldn't work for me. I'm not going to get it,' " Smith said.
She moved to North Charleston from Fort Lauderdale four years ago, following her mother, Lorna Singh, who moved here three years before that. She has never been married, and her sons' father died seven years ago.
"My mom kept telling me if I came here, she could help with the children, and finally I decided to take her up on the offer," Smith said.
But she wasn't happy.
"I felt lost for four years," she said. "You might even say I was depressed for the first two years I was here, but every time I talked about going back to Florida, my friends would tell me no."
She met Leilani's father, Antonio Mulligan of North Charleston, shortly after he returned from a two-year tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Early last year, she grew tired of renting an apartment in North Charleston, but she knew she could not afford to buy a house.
She applied to East Cooper Habitat for Humanity. Then she prayed.
In April, she was chosen for the three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot house.
"When we got the news, so many blessings began unfolding," she said.
Like other Habitat for Humanity groups worldwide, East Cooper Habitat, started in 1990, is a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian organization that provides affordable houses to families in need. Homeowners work alongside volunteers to construct their homes.
The selection process is competitive, said East Cooper Habitat Executive Director Bob Hervey. There are about 25 applicants for every one who gets a home.
"Anyone who gets a Habitat house has already gone through a gauntlet of qualifications," Hervey said.
Smith, Mulligan and her children put the required 350 hours of "sweat equity" into the house.
"The boys put their hard work into this house, and that really gives us a sense of pride," Smith said. "We saw it when it had no walls. Sometimes the boys will say, 'I painted that wall,' or whatever."
Smith also had to provide a down payment and will pay principal-only monthly mortgage payments. Habitat uses the payment money to fund more houses.
"We all admired the fact that she's got a job and is a single mom," Hervey said. "We're just looking at helping her out here and giving her a fresh start.
"Between her job and being a single mom, she still found the time to put in the sweat equity. She got to know some of our regular volunteers, and they all loved her and thought she was a wonderful individual."
Smith took possession of the house after the Dec. 9 dedication ceremony. "The first night we were here, my older son and I kept walking around the house because we couldn't believe it was ours," she said.
Wanting a fresh start, Smith gave away her furniture and bought all new, leaving her financially drained.
"I told the kids they could get one thing for Christmas, and that's all I could do," she said.
Then she got a call from Seacoast Church. They wanted to bring her a tree and gifts for the children.
"I literally cried," she said. "I just broke down when I found out. It's a feeling I can't explain."
Since moving in, Smith has settled into life in Mount Pleasant. She now lives just minutes from her job at East Cooper Medical Center. Her sons go to James B. Edwards Elementary School, and her daughter's day care is nearby.
Smith has been welcomed by her neighbors.
"I am coming from a place where none of the neighbors talked to you," she said. "Now I can let my boys play outside and not worry about them.
"I am making this community my home. I want to make it my community and be involved."
Smith doesn't really care how Christmas dinner turns out. The important thing is it will be served in the house she owns.
"I'm so happy everything fell into place," she said. "It's such a wonderful feeling. You'll never see a frown on my face again."
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or on Facebook.
Tiffany Smith is East Cooper Habitat For Humanity's 63rd homeowner, but her house is one of a kind.
It is a "net zero energy" house, meaning it's extremely energy-efficient. It has structural insulated panel walls and roofs, airtight construction, geothermal heating and cooling, solar water heating, energy recovery ventilation and high performance windows. It uses LED lighting and Energy Star appliances.
"In simple terms, it means you're going to have a 'net zero' energy bill, and you achieve that by having a very energy-efficient house," said project coordinator Charles Muldrow, an East Cooper Breakfast Rotary Club member and president of Stubbs Muldrow Herin architects.
The Building Enclosure Council Charleston wanted to build a net zero energy house as a study on how to achieve net zero energy consumption in a hot and humid environment such as Charleston.
In 2009 the council partnered with East Cooper Breakfast Rotary Club to fund and build the house for the East Cooper Habitat for Humanity.
"An extra bonus is that these houses are for the people who can least afford rising energy costs," Muldrow said.
Based on the work of Jeff Christian at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who has completed six NZEHs, the house took about seven months to build.
In October, the Building Enclosure Council, East Cooper Breakfast Rotary and Habitat for Humanity received an American Institute of Architects Charleston Honor Award for Sustainability for the house.
Muldrow said the house will soon be on a Web-based monitoring system, which will allow anyone interested to monitor the energy usage online.