Antionette Gordon remembers what life was like before she had her own home.
She couldn't decorate the way she wanted, and at only about 1,000 square feet, the house was cramped.
Then, in 2002, Gordon moved into a new, bigger house she had helped Habitat for Humanity volunteers build. She marked another milestone about a year ago when she paid off the mortgage.
"It's been a blessing — a real blessing — to have my own home and to be able to do what I want to in my home," she said.
Gordon lives in one of 363 homes that volunteers have built in the Baton Rouge area since 1989, when the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity launched. She's also among the 92 of those homeowners who have paid off their mortgages.
At an event marking the organization's 30th anniversary Saturday morning, Gordon and several others tossed their loan papers into a pit and set fire to them for a ceremonial "mortgage burning."
Building, moving into and ultimately paying off a home is a challenging — but rewarding — process, said Lynn Clark, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Baton Rouge.
People who apply for a Habitat for Humanity home must meet income requirements, currently live in substandard housing and be able to repay the mortgage for the new house, which is held by Habitat for Humanity.
"We don't give them away, which is a big misconception. ... We ask people to partner with us, and that's working 255 hours of 'sweat equity' building their house and other partners' houses," Clark said.
Houses are built on donated, purchased and adjudicated properties.
"We have houses in over 30 neighborhoods across the city. Many of them hadn't seen any new construction in decades before Habitat moved in," Clark said. "We find that once we start building, people have a renewed sense of pride in their neighborhood and they start sprucing up, too."
Since 1989, about 130,000 people have logged 895,000 volunteer hours with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, Clark said.
Randy Hebert, a longtime volunteer, said working at house-building sites is a fulfilling experience.
"You start out with a slab and by about 9:30, the walls are up ... and the homeowners are working with us," he said. "You touch so many lives."
Bridget Kaigler, a Habitat for Humanity board member, said people from all walks of life and a variety of organizations pitch in on the construction work, creating an exciting atmosphere.
"It's the energy of everyone coming out and helping," she said. "That's what community is all about."
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who spoke at Saturday's event, also has taken part in build projects.
"There's love, there's concern as every hammer is put on every nail, every window is put up," she said.
As Broome used a lighter to start the fire for the ceremonial mortgage burning, Sonia Pania stood nearby. She smiled, watching flames begin to char the papers she'd thrown into the pit.
"At one time I thought I would never be a homeowner," said Pania, who has lived in her Habitat home since 2004.
She recalled the excitement she felt when she made her last payment on the house in 2017.
"It's mine now, and it's paid off," she said. "It's a feeling of ownership. ... It's like you have a piece of the American pie."