The first tip off that told Falisha Stewart that it was going to be a weird day was when the conversation turned towards the Atlanta Falcons. It certainly wasn't going to be an average day: it was late November 2003 and Stewart, a single mom working for the state department of transportation, was moving into a new three-bedroom home. She had qualified for the opportunity to live in the Lakewood area of South Atlanta through a local charity, Charis Community Housing, a big move up from the cramped two-bedroom apartment in a rough neighborhood she was sharing with her daughter, 12-year-old Alisha, and her mother, Linda, who was having trouble walking. The area they had been living in was so bad, she says she started praying, asking God to find her a new place to live.
During the ride over to her new home, she was overjoyed, but curious why the driver kept talking about the city's NFL team. She remembers telling them that the Falcons's were pretty bad that season, but didn't think anything of it until the car got close to her new address. The streets were filled with people. A crowd has assembled in her new yard. By the time she realized what was happening—the Falcons's running back, Warrick Dunn, was presenting her home to her as part of his charitable Homes for the Holidays program—she was already crying tears of joy. Alisha had to accept the keys and attend to the ribbon-cutting as her mom walked into a house that, unbeknownst to her, was actually fully furnished.
"It was an unimaginable feeling, I don't think I can describe it," Stewart says of walking into her new home that day. "It wasn't the material things, though they thought about everything. It was everything. It stayed in my heart and minds for months. It was the biggest thing anybody had ever done for me."
And nobody called her out for calling out the Falcons.
Stewart is one of nearly 150 single parents who have benefitted from a unique program Warrick Dunn started to honor his own mother, a single parent. Betty Dunn Smothers was a Baton Rogue police officer and single mom raising six kids who was tragically killed during an off-duty shooting in 1993. She had been moonlighting as a security guard to make more money for her family. Dunn, who was 18 at the time, assumed guardianship of his siblings, and used insurance money and funds from a trust set up by the city to purchase a home for his family.
"Purchasing a home for the first time was a very emotional time for my family," Dunn told Curbed via email. "It was purchased with the insurance money received when my mom lost her life protecting the Baton Rouge community as a police officer. She was unable to purchase a home for our family. The home meant the world to us not having to worry about moving month to month. Everyone was thankful and appreciated having a definite place to call home."
Dunn's grandmother helped him raise his brothers and sisters, but as he progressed from a star college running back at Florida State University to a professional player in Tampa Bay, family was on his mind. During his rookie year, when his then coach Tony Dungy challenged players to become more involved in their communities, Dunn responded with a non-profit meant to honor his mom.
Home for the Holidays was designed to foster transformational change by providing stability, comfort and safety, according to Dunn. After the recipient works to earn a home via a housing partner such as Habitat for Humanity, the gifts from the foundation, coupled with support services such as financial workshops, help with a hand up, not a hand out. The charity partners with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity in cities across the country: Georgia, Florida and Louisiana are flagship states, though the organization has provided homes in 13 markets thus far. Qualified single parents who have gone through homeownership programs by Habitat for Humanity affiliates and are nominated by the organization receive $5,000 in down payment assistance for a home mortgage, but to their surprise, when they move in, the home is fully furnished. The charity estimates each home costs roughly $50,000 to stock and outfit.
"It's fun, but it's very intense," says program coordinator Ashley Hamilton. "People decorate most homes over a period of time. W have to work with a sheet provided by Habitat. We shop for people we don't know, and have to shop for them all at once."
Stewart was blown away when she walked in to see everything she was planning to save up for over months and years already there, free of charge, including a bedroom for her daughter complete with a computer, done up in her favorite colors, yellow and blue. Representatives at Charis had gotten clues by asking her for her family's preferences, suggesting if they received any donated items, they might pass them along. After Stewart saw everything that was included in her new home, she went to her old apartment, packed her clothes, and gave away everything else to the neighbors.
So far, the charity, which has just three full-time employees, has provided 145 single parents with homes over the last 18 years, and 96 percent of beneficiaries continue to be homeowners. In addition to furnishing the home, they also provide seed money and a seminar to help learn about investing and establishing retirement accounts.
"Over the past 18 years, I have been able to witness the impact our work," says Dunn. "The "trickle-down-effect" of Homes for the Holidays encourages others to work hard, enjoy the reward and give back. There is a stellar sophomore quarterback at Clemson University who was served by our Homes for the Holidays program (Deshaun Watson). He saw his mom dedicate efforts to purchase a home. I'm confident that he will step up in years to come to help others."
Homes for the Holidays has slowed down slightly this year, planning six to seven homes this holiday season but next year, they plan to ramp up again and do more than a dozen, as well as expand the program's offerings.
"The future of the WDC is focused on expansion," wrote Dunn. "We are continuing to enter new markets across the country by exploring partnership opportunities with corporations and NFL teams. Our Homes for the Holidays program has launched support services for our recipients that address education, financial literacy and food insecurity."
The charity is still a part of Stewart's life, and not just because of the home, which now has a fourth generation of the family, Alisha's son Keldrian, living under its roof.
"It changed my outlook," she says. "There are awesome people in this world. Single mothers are constantly providing for people. This just made me say, 'Hey, I matter.'"
She was also recently asked to be a part a new recipient advisory council for Homes for the Holiday recipients, to help assist those moving into new homes and provide advice and encouragement. She describes it as a great form of outreach, being a resource for those in the same situation. It's part of an expansion of the program, according to Hamilton. In addition to the advisory council, they're working on adding urban gardening and healthy eating seminars to help new homeowners.
What would Stewart tell new beneficiaries of the program?
"Live it, relish it, and enjoy it," says Stewart. "They can call me anytime. Or, if they want to shout on the phone and express the gratitude, they can call me. I understand. I've never had anything this big happen to me in my life and never be obligated to pay someone back."
Dunn says he feels the same way.
"I think that I am blessed. That I've been able to impact families lives and help them achieve the American dream of homeownership."