Ellisha Pepper and her children celebrate the wall raising on their Habitat for Humanity home, under construction in south Salem in 2019. (Courtesy/Salem Habitat for Humanity)

When Ellisha Pepper got her son back from the state, she made a promise.

“I told him, ‘In five years, we’re going to have a house,’” she said.

At the time, Pepper was living at Her Place, an inpatient drug treatment home. She’d been clean for just a few weeks, didn’t have a job and had been on the streets on and off since she was a child.

But in a few months, she’ll make good on her promise, moving into a brand-new south Salem home she’s helped build with Habitat for Humanity. It’s taken years of planning, saving and working to get her there.

“I’m super excited. I got to pick my tile,” she said, showing a picture of white tile with clear icy pieces on her phone.

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Pepper’s journey from homelessness and addiction to homeowner started in February 2014, when she lost custody of her three-year-old son, Anthony, because of her drug use.

She’d been using since she was 11 and never had a stable home life, she said. Her two older daughters lived with their father’s family and she wasn’t in touch with them because she didn’t want them living with her on the streets.

After Anthony went into foster care, Pepper’s caseworkers referred her to Fostering Attachment, a Marion County Circuit Court program for parents with open child welfare cases and drug or alcohol addictions.

The program’s goal is to help parents get clean and teach them parenting skills so they can reunite with their children.

Pepper said she weighed her options for a few days and made a decision: she would do whatever the state wanted to get Anthony back.

“To not have my son with me and to not know where he was staying, what his bed looked like…that’s where it started,” she said. She was clean four days after state workers took Anthony away.

Her goal was simple: “My kid’s coming home and he’s staying with me.”

Pepper quickly stood out in court for her dedication to making change, said Kim Lemman, executive director of St. Francis Shelter, which works with the court to provide housing for parents going through the program.

She showed up to meetings with the judge with a detailed notebook outlining her plans. She never missed an appointment with her caseworker.

“Ellisha was the star of the show,” Lemman said.

Anthony was back in her care three months and three weeks later.

Janalee Weitman, the court coordinator for Fostering Attachment, wasn’t working there when Pepper went through the program. But Weitman said she knows her name, and that it’s unusual for a parent to regain custody so quickly.

“That’s a sign of someone very motivated and wanting to make changes,” she said.

From there, Pepper had to build a new life for herself and her children.

She got pregnant in April of 2014 with her daughter, Sofia.

When she went into labor the following January, she nearly had to put Anthony back in emergency foster care because she didn’t have anyone in her life who could take care of her son while she was in the hospital.

Lemman found a friend who was willing to watch the boy instead.

After finishing inpatient treatment, Pepper and her children went to live at St. Francis Shelter for several months. Then she got a subsidized housing voucher and began looking for an apartment.

Pepper made a wishlist: she wanted a washer and dryer in the apartment, and a pool in the complex. She went through the phone book alphabetically, calling places until she found one that met her criteria. That was where she wanted to live, she declared.

With no rental history, Pepper faced an uphill battle, but Lemman said she applied the same meticulous determination to her housing search as she had to every other part of her life.

“Her application was this full of supporting letters,” Lemman said, holding her hands about a foot apart. She asked all the Fostering Attachment staff to write a supporting letter and put together anything she could think of to show the landlords that she’d be an “awesome tenant.”

She also got a job at the United Gospel Mission’s thrift store, sorting donations and putting them out on the floor.

Five years later, she’s still in the same apartment. This Thanksgiving, she hosted her first family dinner with all five of her children. One of her teenage daughters cooked green Jell-O, a family staple originally from Pepper’s great-grandma.

“I was sitting there at the table and while I was eating, I was crying,” Pepper said.

But renting wasn’t her long-term plan.

At an event with Salem Housing Authority, she met someone who worked for Salem’s Habitat for Humanity, which works with low-income families to build affordable homes.

“Whatever I have to do, I’m qualifying for that,” Pepper remembered thinking.

It wasn’t an easy list. Pepper had to improve her credit score, pay off old debts and find a new job so she earned enough money to make home payments.

She found work with Morrison Child and Family Services as a parent mentor, working with parents who have open child welfare cases. Her experience with losing her son helps her connect with parents going through the system.

“They get to relax with us,” she said.

Habitat for Humanity builds two homes per year and gets anywhere from 20 to 60 applications for them, said Kattrina Osborn, Habitat’s director of programs.

Pepper applied three years in a row before she was accepted for 2019.

Families who work to build and buy a Habitat house are expected to put in 300 to 500 hours of “sweat equity,” helping with construction and other tasks. Once the house is complete, they get a 30-year interest-free mortgage from Habitat.

Construction on Pepper’s three-bedroom home began in April. She helped lay the foundation, framed walls, placed rebar and installed siding.

This time, she had a community backing her. Court staff, including the judge on her child welfare case, showed up to help build. The St. Francis staff spent a day on the construction, Lemman said.

The group helping on the home was so large Habitat for Humanity staff began calling it Team Pepper around the office.

 “We have not experienced a diverse group like that come together,” said Adena Warner, Habitat’s director of resource development.

Pepper will move in in early 2020 with her three young children. Her teenage daughter is also planning to move with her and has been helping pick out fixtures and paint colors, she said.

Anthony is excited to have his own bedroom and has told his mom he intends to be the first to use their new toilet.

Habitat for Humanity and St. Francis Shelter each received $10,000 grants from United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley in October to continue their work. Habitat’s grant will help build two new homes in 2020.

Warner shared Pepper’s story at the awards banquet and said she teared up sharing how far the family has come.

“I get told a lot that I did a lot of work but for me, I don’t see that,” Pepper said. “I just did what I needed to do.”

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.