The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City is one of the nation’s most iconic symbols of Christmas. But after the lights come down, the giant Norway spruce has a less-public second life.
For the last 12 years, when the season of attention has passed, the real estate company running Rockefeller Center has milled the tree down for boards.
Volunteers from Habitat for Humanity use the boards to help make a home. Last summer, last year’s tree made it to Newburgh, New York, where it was drilled into the rafters of an abandoned fixer-upper that would one day belong to Lakisha Atkins. She remembers when her grandmother used to take her to Rockefeller Center when she was younger.
“I remember us going through the crowd of people walking to see the Christmas tree get lit,” Lakisha said. “She raised me from the hospital when nobody didn’t want me. She took me.”
A sturdy home has long been hard for Lakisha to find. Her grandmother’s place was crowded with distant cousins. They didn’t like her, she said, and some of them abused her.
“I didn’t understand why I was getting treated so bad … I didn’t understand why they hated me so much,” Atkins said. “Can you imagine in sixth grade praying for a kid just to have somebody to love you? But then realizing that you just have to find love inside yourself.”
Eventually, she found love with Larry Atkins, an aspiring plumber she met at a party. They married and started raising five kids together.
“Well, our plan was I go to school and get my degree and he supports me. Then he goes to school and … we get a good job, and then we get a house,” Lakisha said.
But before that could happen, in 2015, Lakisha got a terrible phone call. Larry was shot and killed.
Habitat for Humanity families do not get their homes in exchange for a sad story. Volunteer labor makes the house affordable, but Lakisha will be on the hook for the mortgage. To qualify, she had to take budgeting classes and put in hundreds of hours of her own work.
The home has potential, as Lakisha put it, just like she did.
“Just like me. Growing up, I was an empty shell. Nobody saw me for who I had potential to be. They saw me at that moment for what I was. So I see my house for what it’s going to be. Not for what it is right now,” she said.
It was June when we first visited that empty shell of a building. By last week, it had been transformed, and Lakisha officially got the keys to her future.
“God doesn’t give you what you pray for. God gives you what you need when you need it, so he will answer your prayers at his own timing. I just would tell that girl that’s laying on her bed crying ’cause she hungry, ’cause she been traumatized, ’cause she been abused. Just keep God, just trust god. That’s the only thing that got me where I’m at in life.”
Lakisha said she wants to stay involved with Habitat by helping other families get through the program. It can be a difficult, lengthy process, but her pitch to other families is: if a single mother of five can do it, you can too.