Published: Oct 23, 2012 10:31 PM EDT
Updated: Oct 23, 2012 10:46 PM EDT

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - It's something less than a third of U.S. homeowners can claim they've accomplished: fully paying off their mortgage. You can add 12 more to that list, thanks to Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendy Counties. They marked the occasion with a special mortgage burning ceremony.

One by one, Tuesday night, homeowners tossed their mortgages into the flames and watched them wrinkle to ashes. After 12 years, Eddie Nelson was bursting with pride. "I've got butterflies, I want to cry, but i'm happy," Nelson said. "I'm so happy, because this is something that I own, and when I leave here, I can leave it to my grandkids and my kids."

These homes were no gift. Families put in the volunteer hours to help build them on top of the monthly payments. This ceremony marked two milestones: full ownership of the first home built as part of Habitat's Women Build Program,  and Habitat's 100th satisfied mortgage, paid off by Laticia Hayes.  "It was easy," Hayes said. "Every month, it was on-time. It's just something for my kids to actually look up and say, well, mom did it, and I know I can do it."

Since it's start 30 years ago, Habitat for Humanity has handed the keys over to 1,234 families. Of those, more than 100 are completely paid off. "In a time when mostly we hear about people walking away from their mortgages, it's pretty exciting to celebrate with families," CEO Katherine "Kitty" Green said.

For these homeowners, it's feeling of pride words don't do justice. "I feel so many feelings, it's unreal," Hayes said.

"I always think every morning, this is mine, and i thank God for it, and I thank Habitat," Nelson said.

These families say the money that once went toward their mortgages will now help pay for other things like college payments and car loans, and maybe even a vacation.