Behind The Berry Queen Bling
04/08/2016 08:00AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Shanna Perkins
Their wigs are colorful and larger than life. But their minds are focused on community empowerment. Their bling is blinding. But they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Their Candy Toss Parade is a topsy-turvy deluge, a visual cacophony of candy and color. But that’s the only time you’ll see them giving handouts. The Berry Queens believe in hand ups. They believe in allowing every resident of Iberia Parish to have the opportunity of home ownership. The Berry Queens’ efforts through Iberia Habitat for Humanity prove they’re far more than sparkles and sassy nicknames.
Birth Of The Berry Queens
Eight years ago, Iberia Habitat for Humanity Board Member Jerre Borland was looking for an innovative way to raise funds for the organization she was so passionate about and so were born The Berry Queens. Borland began with very few women and $500. Today, there are more than 100 eclectic and outlandish members, raising upwards of $70,000 Habitat for Humanity.
“Iberia Habitat for Humanity is really about giving people a hand up – not a handout,” explains Borland aka Berry Head Boss Queen. “It allows people to have the opportunity of home ownership, which I think is the first true step to adult independence. Many people in our area don’t qualify for traditional lending, so for Habitat it’s a no interests loan for a home you put in ‘sweat equity,’ so you have an investment in your future and in a place that gives you shelter and safety and provides you with a stable foundation. So for us, we believe that one of the first steps to independence is to own your own home. The Berry Queens are Iberia Habitat for Humanity’s biggest fundraiser. We raise funds that allow us to make this dream real for people in our community.”
Iberia Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of Habitat International, has been in the community since 1992. Born of Hurricane Andrew, the organization has created nearly 20 homes within Iberia Parish. Habitat for Humanity provides interest free loans to families and individuals who couldn’t otherwise receive one. Many of their homes are built from the ground up while others are remodels. The fortunate families who get to live in these homes are called “partner families” and they’re a vital part of the building process.
“With the application process, something that we require they do sweat equity, which means they come in and help build these houses,” states Executive Director and Administrative Assistant for Iberia Habitat for Humanity and Berry Queen Leah Babin. “They later pay it forward by helping to build houses for other families. It’s an investment of their time and into their property and future.”
Habitat’s work does not begin and end with the construction of these homes. In fact, their investment never ends. Potential partner families begin the process by contacting Babin’s office. She then sends out an application that includes a thorough background check. Once the families pass this phase, a selection committee within the 11-person board of directors meets with the potential family. Finally, all of this information is presented to the board and a comprehensive decision is made. As Babin says, the decision isn’t made overnight, because it’s one they have to be certain they get right.
Iberia Habitat for Humanity’s homes can be found in New Iberia, Loreauville and Jeanerette and the group ensures they’re all in safe areas that are a good fit for the partner families. Habitat members personally get to know each family so that they can create a home they’ll thrive in. For instance, those with handicapped family members will receive handicap accessible homes that are designed with their unique needs in minds. When the homes are complete, it’s the partner families’ chance to begin paying their mortgage and becoming self reliant, but the watchful eyes of Habitat for Humanity are never too far away.
“Once we build it, it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to maintain it, but we just kind of check on it and make sure everything is ok,” Babin relates. “We recently drove past one gentleman’s home and realized he needed gravel. So, we got some and delivered it to his house. He called us and was so appreciative. They definitly express their gratitude. We also have a program called Critical Home Repair and a Brush of Kindness where we go in and just fix houses up painting them and landscaping the outside. When you help the community shine, it releases the good energy that overflows into other areas of our lives.”
Berry Building Co.
When construction begins, Iberia Habitat for Humanity gets licensed professionals to come in first and handle their part of the building process, be it plumbing or electricity. Once this is complete volunteers and a bushel of Berry Queens step in to turn these construction sites into homes. In addition to helping build the partner families’ homes, The Berry Queens are Iberia Habitat for Humanity’s largest fundraisers.
“The Berry Queen Ball is the biggest fundraiser,” says Borland. “We raise the funds that allow us to make the dream of homeownership a reality for people in our community. The Berry Queens is fun, sparkly and blingy, but its purpose is to give people these opportunities who wouldn’t otherwise have them. We believe in everybody working together to help people stand on their own two feet. Habitat for Humanity if a Christian mission with that sole purpose in mind
“Everybody sees these women as just these women in wigs and crowns, but they’re really representative of every woman in out Parish,” she continues. “They’re doctors, lawyers and housewives who work together to help fight for this cause. They’re really special women.”
The Berry Queens and Iberia Habitat for Humanity have two upcoming projects. One is a remodeling project with a partner family who will be ready to move in once it’s complete. The second will be building a handicap accessible home for a disabled lady on her property. With her son going to college, this home will allow her to be self-sufficient.
Hearts Of Glitter And Gold
Babin explains that Habitat for Humanity’s new motto is “Strength. Stability. Self Reliance.” This is what the Berry Queens strive to give each member of the community – an opportunity to have something to be proud of and a chance to be empowered. She confesses that some people misconceive who the Berry Queens are, assuming they’re privileged women with the luxury of free time. Babin hopes to set the record straight by explaining that each woman in the organization has a past a reason they’re compelled to help others within their community. She does this by sharing her own story and explaining the personal reason Iberia Habitat for Humanity is so close to her heart.
“Growing up, my home was very dysfunctional,” Babin states frankly. “In 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit while I was in my first semester at UL Lafayette and I got on Highway 90 to come home when everyone else was trying to get out of town. No matter what was going on inside of our home, the home itself had a good foundation. It had good frame work. It had storm windows. It was where I felt safe during the storm. We all have storms that come through our lives, but if we have a home where we feel safe – that’s invaluable. Maybe a momma can put her baby down at home without worrying about it getting sick. Maybe a coat of paint on a house can liven the neighborhood up a little. All of those things make a difference in our community. It’s more about our strength, stability and self-reliance and the opportunity to let others develop those traits in themselves.”