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December 11, 2006:
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Troy McLean, host of HomeTeam TV, greets young Ethan Celestin and his mother Esther in Waldorf, Charles County, Md. on Sunday. HomeTeam provided the family with their first home. The event was a surprise for the Celestins.
By David Noss
WALDORF, Md. - Christmas came early, and in a big way, to a woman and her four year old son on Sunday. HomeTeam, the nationally syndicated show that gives unsuspecting individuals or families the chance to own their very first home, was in town to present the unsuspecting Esther Celestin and her son Ethan with their first home.
Celestin, who currently resides in Laurel, Md., had applied for the program using the application process on the program’s website. However, from that point on up until Sunday, she had no idea that she had been selected for this honor. It was to be a complete surprise.
In order to maintain the secrecy, the program’s staff had enlisted the help of her friends and family. That morning, a friend of Celestin, who was also a real estate agent, was driving Celestin around the area under the pretense of showing her homes for sale.
At approximately 1:00 p.m., the car carrying Celestin and her son pulled into the parking lot in front of the home located not far from Leonardtown Road and St. Charles Parkway. She couldn’t miss the large motor home sitting along the road that was boldly painted with the HomeTeam décor. Nor could she miss the cameras or the show’s host, Troy McClain, standing there waiting for her.
It was easy to see from the expression of shock and joy on her face that she knew what was about to happen. She went immediately to McClain and hugged him. McClain then had to coax her young son from the back of the car. He was a handsome young man and was well dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and perfectly knotted tie.
After a brief exchange outside with the cameras rolling, McClain escorted Celestin and her son into the house for a tour. As they were inside the second part of the surprise was unraveled. The show’s producers had arranged for her family and members from her church to be present.
Approximately twelve friends and family were flown in from the Miami area. Celestin and her family are Haitian. The family noted that Haitian tradition strongly values family support. “You will see a togetherness and exuberance only a family of Haitians can provide,” wrote her maternal grandmother.
Approximately 130 well-dressed members of Celestin’s church, the Maryland Gospel Assembly from Brandywine, Md., made the pilgrimage on the Church bus to share in the surprise. The congregation was led by the dapper Pastor Newton M. Pelt, Jr. Pelt said that he found out about the show two or three weeks prior. “I’ve been part of the secret keeping team,” Pelt said. Pelt has known Celestin for the past ten years and has been her Pastor for the last four.
Earlier, before Celestin’s arrival, the show’s producer, Eric Vaughn, had shepherded the friends and family out behind the town houses where they could not be seen. Now that Celestin and her son were inside, the crowd was quietly brought to the front of the house and assembled for phase II of the surprise.
After everyone was in place and ready to go, the crew radioed inside and gave the word to bring them outside. As Celestin came out the front door, the crowd erupted with “WELCOME HOME!”
Celestin was clearly in shock. The first thing she said was, “Oh my God! My family is here!” She ran to them and spent several moments embracing them, no longer able to fight back the tears. The looks on the faces of her friends, and new neighbors who had gathered to watch, demonstrated that the feelings of love and joy were shared by all.
“I’m speechless,” said Celestin. “Everybody knows I’m never speechless. I’m always talking, I’m always saying something.”
Celestin explained that she found out about HomeTeam when she was surfing the channels one day. The episode she stumbled upon had rewarded a woman who worked in her community to help orphans. “I was like wow, I would like a house,” said Celestin. “I didn’t do anything for orphans or anything like that, but I would like a house…I told my sisters, ‘you know what, I’m going to apply for HomeTeam’ and they’re like, ‘girl, you ain’t never going to get it.’”
But, her sisters were wrong. Celestin recalled the day she received a call from Stephanie Durham, Executive in Charge of Production at HomeTeam: “Stephanie called me and I was sick with the flu that night. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t get out of bed, and I picked the phone and I was like, ‘Hello.’ I was all groggy and she was like, ‘Hi, this is Stephanie from HomeTeam.’ I said ‘from who, from where?’ She said, ‘from HomeTeam.’ I said, ‘oh, Oh, OH’ and all of a sudden I could talk. You know, it was like a miraculous healing or something. But, she interviewed me again and I was like wow, why are they interviewing me again? I guess I’m getting close, you know. And I was really excited. I just kept praying and here it is.”
Esther Celestin surrounded by her family outside of her new home in Waldorf. The Pastor of her church, Norman M. Pelt, Jr. appears on the left wearing the hat.
In addition to her family and members of her church, many of the neighbors were on hand to share in the joyous moment. Diana “Di” Reed and Colita Booze live in the next cul de sac. Reed was a member of the work team that was comprised of Celestin’s friends and future neighbors who helped with fixing up the house. Neither woman had yet to meet Celestin. “I’m anxious to meet her,” Reed said. “I had to be here to see this because, I just wanted to see her face. This is awesome!”
Reed said that she found out about the project when she was walking her three dogs through the neighborhood and ran into Scott Jones, Location Manager for HomeTeam. Reed said she asked Jones what was going on and he told her. “I said, ‘if there’s anything I can do to help, let me know,’” remarked Reed. “He said, ‘You can come up and I’m sure we can use your help.’ I’ve been here since Thursday morning helping out.”
Reed was very happy to be a part of the project. “They’re a great crew, they’re great people,” Reed said, speaking of the HomeTeam crew. Reed also believes that HomeTeam picked the right family to receive the home: “They’re a very deserving family. The family is awesome. They take you right into their hearts. They are so cool!”
Celestin wound up in the DC area through a series of life events which started with her traveling hundreds of miles away from family in Miami to attend Weslyan Women’s college in Macon, Georgia. She earned her degree in communications, which presented her with the opportunity to work as a researcher in Denver for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
After the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, Esther’s pride in her country led her to enlist in the National Guard. While serving, she became pregnant with her son Ethan and was granted an honorable discharge. She went home to Miami to have her son amongst family. Esther soon concluded that professionally she was limited in Miami and moved to D.C. in hope of better prospects. She soon found work but it was not enough as she missed the time she once had with her son.
She is now tapping her potential again as she partakes on a career that allows her to enjoy her passion for cooking while also spending time with her son—she started her own catering business. Members of her church also recounted that Celestin is always very active in preparing the meals for the monthly fellowship dinners.
Before Celestin and her son arrived, Enaé Boone, Vice President of Production, explained how the HomeTeam process worked. “What HomeTeam does is we try to give people a leg up, people who are really working to try and make their lives better,” said Boone. “What we try to do for them is to give them some breathing room.”
Boone explained that the selection process begins with people applying at their website, hometeam.com. From that point, they look for what Boone described as the “best story.”
Once someone is selected, HomeTeam will find a property and renovate it, pay for the first twelve months of the mortgage, pay up to 10% of the down payment, and pay 5% of the closing costs. This gives the recipient twelve months of “breathing room” in which they can find their own lender and take possession of the home.
“What’s unfortunate is that you can only pick one,” Boone said. “There are a lot of people that we would like to be able to help in each city. But, you can only pick one.”
Both Boone and the show’s Producer, Eric Vaughn, stressed that the recipient’s family and friends are an instrumental part of the process. Their participation is valued at every step along the way. In the beginning, their input helps determine the type of house and where it will be located.
Friends and family are also consulted for personal details about the family. This information is used to assist the decorators in making the house into a home. Inside the house, Boone demonstrated by showing me Ethan’s room. Ethan was reportedly a big fan of Spiderman. To make him feel right at home, the crew had decorated the room with a Spiderman bed set and painted the walls and trim in complementary colors.
Boone further demonstrated the personalization process by pointing out the kitchen. Since Celestin was an avid cook and in the catering business, extra care was given to properly equipping the kitchen, right down to the granite counter tops.
Friends and family are also instrumental in the work stage of the process. “Her friends and family have come up from Miami and they have helped us completely renovate inside,” said Boone. “We’ve painted, we’ve put in new furniture, new appliances and really turned this place into a home for her.”
Boone said that no matter which city they go into, the neighbors are always part of the process. In addition to helping with the manual labor such as cleaning and painting, one of Celestin’s new neighbors was able to save the project some money. As an employee of the local Best Buy, he was able to negotiate a discount on the new LCD television that was placed into the home.
After the crowd had started to disperse, Boone walked over to me and said, “Now you can see why I really love to do this job.”
From here, Vaughn explained that he and his staff had to go through several hundred hours of footage and whittle it down into a one-hour show. The episode is scheduled to air nationally in January, 2007. It can be seen locally on WJLA out of Washington, D.C.
Audio: Hear Esther Celestin give her acceptance speech. Begins with Troy McLean relating a story. ( .mp3 file, 2.54 MB )