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Building houses one tiara at at time

Berry Queens: raising funds to raise houses.

Berry Queens

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Raising enough money to help families buy a home of their own sounds like serious business, but it doesn’t have to be serious at all. A group of enterprising New Iberia women has shown what can be achieved with crazy costumes, brightly colored wigs, rhinestone tiaras, and lots of planning and determination.

The Berry Queens, a tongue-in-cheek reference to New Iberia, is made up of nearly 100 women – professionals, stay-at-home-moms, business owners, entrepreneurs and community volunteers. The group has been the top fundraiser for Iberia Habitat for Humanity for over a decade, helping provide affordable places for local families to call home.

Dressing Up for a Cause

Since 2008 the Berry Queens organization has raised funds through events like its annual ball and pageant, a competition (and quite a show) where members perform in zany costumes and announce the year’s new “Queen of the Berry.” Jerre Borland, Berry Queens founder and “Head Boss Queen” (as well as an Iberia Habitat for Humanity board member) says, “The whole idea was to have fun, laugh at all the things that drive women crazy...and see that our best asset is the ability to make a positive change.”

Over the years, as enthusiasm for the organization’s cause and energy has grown, the pageant’s attendance has increased from 125 in the first year to nearly 600 in 2019. They outgrew the Sugar Cane Festival Building, then the Cade Community Center, and eventually landed at Cypress Bayou Casino for the last four years. In 2021, after a year of COVID-related cancelations and regrouping, the pageant and ball – scheduled for September 18 – will be returning to its roots and moving back to La Louisiane Banquet Hall in New Iberia.

The Berry Queens’ other annual fundraiser Hats ‘n Hallelujah is a smaller event, but one that celebrates women in a big way. The Sunday brunch is usually held in February

or March each year and, while the $3,000 to $6,000 usually raised at the event is far less than the larger pageant’s draw, Borland points out that every dollar helps. She says, “That amount could fund repair projects.”

Tale of Three Houses

As it turns out, those dollars do add up. Over the years, the Berry Queens have raised over $400,000, all donated to Iberia Habitat for Humanity. The local nonprofit organization counts on that money to do everything from home repairs to renovations to complete removal of dilapidated houses in order to build new ones. We learned more about three such homes that have been extensively renovated in the last eight years.

In searching for a home that would be a good fit for one single mother and her children, Iberia Habitat for Humanity board members found one on Iberia Street, close to a school and public park. The three-bedroom, two-bath home was filled with unexpected architectural details that were incorporated into the renovations. The dining room’s built-in cabinets with inlaid rosettes were refinished, the original kitchen cabinets were refurbished, and the hardwood floors were brought back to life. The interior was also given a facelift with a fresh coat of paint – accommodating the children, who had specific color requests for their rooms. Licensed and certified electricians and plumbers were hired to rerun old wiring and update the plumbing, and an alarm system brought the single mother extra security. “We made the home beautiful and added to the appearance of the neighborhood significantly, which is also a consideration when scouting locations,” says Borland.

Just a couple of blocks away on Robertson Street, where a dilapidated home once stood, community members came together several years ago and replaced it with new construction for a Vietnam veteran. The now two-bedroom, one-bath slab home has an open floor plan that was drawn up by architect (and current Mayor of New Iberia) Freddie DeCourt. Attractive yet practical tiled kitchen countertops and vinyl flooring were mixed with a few surprising custom features. Craftsman cabinetry in the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room were donated by a homeowner in Loreauville, who was renovating her own home. Another unexpected finish is the crown molding in each room, donated by a neighbor across the street. “This home means all the world to me; it’s a gift from God,” says its owner, who was involved in the construction since the day he and others tore down the original home. Like all Habitat partners, he put in a minimum of 500 hours of “sweat equity” into the building of his home, as well as other houses.

In Loreauville a family of six is still enjoying their new house, a year after moving in. When Iberia Habitat for Humanity began looking for a place, the family requested enough land for a garden. Upon finding a home that had long been vacant, and after speaking to its owners, Habitat was fortunate to have been donated the property. Bryan Stephens, vice president of Iberia Habitat’s board and retired construction company owner, worked on the home for two years with the help of volunteers. “We filled three dumpsters of trash and then took the house down to the studs,” says Stephens.

In the original part of the Loreauville home, the electrical system and plumbing were overhauled and brought up to metro code. A hallway was added leading to a new primary suite and bathroom, laundry area and mudroom. Tiling was put in the bathrooms, and elsewhere laminate wood flooring was laid. Outside, the aged roof was replaced, the porch was extended, and its steps given a half-round edge on one side, adding to the home’s curb appeal. In the end, the redesign turned the original two-bedroom, one-bath shell of a house into a 1,700-square-foot, 3-bedroom, two-bath dwelling.

All Hail the Queens!

Andreé Schlicher, president of Iberia Habitat for Humanity, says, “Seeing the pride of home ownership in their eyes makes everything we do extremely heartwarming.” She says Berry Queens’ fundraising has given Iberia Habitat for Humanity the ability

to not only build and remodel homes for partner families, but to also complete critical home repairs for many more home owners.

There have been many proud moments for the Berry Queens, who are applauded by the community with increasing frequency and who were recipients of The Daily Iberian’s 2015 Citizen of the Year group award. Borland says at the top of her list of proud moments was “the night we finished that first ball with $7,000 and knew together we could do something special for our town.” Looking to the future, she adds, “We want to leave a legacy of caring for other people. I hope my 16-year-old daughter will take the reins and have her friends join her in working at making a difference for other people.

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