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Air Force vet, mom of 3 calls getting Habitat home 'emotional,' 'overwhelming'
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A sign hangs on the fence at the job site for Charmaine Smith’s new house while volunteers work. - photo by Erin O. Smith

How to help

To volunteer or make a donation to the “Home for a Hero” project, visit www.habitathallcounty.org.

At first glance, the newly rebuilt house, situated in a nondescript neighborhood called Wintergreen Court, doesn’t look any different from every other freshly constructed home in the Flowery Branch area.

You have to step inside to see the difference.

“When I saw the stairs, it just filled my heart with so much joy and so much emotion,” said Charmaine Smith, the property’s future resident.

The home is being rebuilt by Habitat for Humanity of Hall County, and the stairs are where the organization’s many volunteers have left their mark in the form of positive messages and well wishes, handwritten in all different colors.

Smith, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran and mother of three, will move into the Wintergreen Court property with her children, Tariq, 13, Ellishiah, 7, and Dorrian, 4, as soon as construction is completed. 

She found out on Oct. 17 that she would be receiving a “Home for a Hero.”

The “Home for a Hero” project was born in early 2014, when the Wintergreen Court location was donated to Habitat for Humanity by the Hunter family, after their home burned down in January. The family specifically requested the property go to a military veteran once it was rebuilt.

Habitat builds several houses a year to help combat homelessness in Hall County, but this is the first home it built specifically with a veteran in mind.

Smith has overcome countless struggles as a disabled veteran and single mother of three, but she already knows the first thing she wants to do when she moves in.

“I really just want to have a big cookout and invite the ones that helped build the home and my church family out, and just fellowship,” Smith said.

A family history

Smith, 35, was raised by her grandparents in Reidsville. When she was 16, she went to live with her mother, who was in the U.S. Army.

Smith’s mother was the reason she joined the Air Force after she graduated high school.

“(My mother) didn’t want me to go into the Army,” Smith said. “It was not an option.”

Smith was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, just

outside Panama City Beach. While she was never deployed overseas, Smith spent almost four years at Tyndall, working in aircraft maintenance, administration and information management.

After an accident, she was medically discharged in May 2003.

Unlike what you might expect, life as a civilian proved to be the greater challenge.

A difficult transition

Smith soon learned that transitioning back into civilian life, especially as a single mother of three children, was harder than anyone could imagine.

“Civilian life and military life are very, very different,” Smith said. “Just looking for employment and knowing that it’s not steady, you never know what can happen on the outside, making sure you have the care and stuff for your kids and medical, it was very difficult.”

Smith’s transition was complicated further by the circumstances of her medical discharge. As a result of the accident, she was officially declared disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs a year ago.

“In my situation it was a little bit harder, because I had to deal with a lot of emotional things,” she said.

Smith said she believes there are “not enough resources” to help veterans transition into civilian life, and often the resources that are available can be counterproductive.

“Especially being a single mother, I couldn’t hardly get much assistance for anything,” Smith said. “Most of the time (to get assistance) you have to really just be really, completely not trying to help yourself, and I don’t think that’s fair. Those that are trying to help themselves and trying to help their kids, they need assistance just to get there and get through it to move on.”

Smith, who works as a Mary Kay consultant, is not the only veteran to struggle finding resources for herself and her children, especially housing.

About 12 percent of the United States’ adult homeless population are military veterans, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Another 1.4 million veterans are estimated to be at risk for homelessness due to factors such as poverty and lack of support.

A roof over their heads

Smith struggles to describe her family’s housing situation before she found the Home for a Hero project. The foursome has moved five times in seven years since returning to Georgia. Smith says the current living arrangement is far from ideal.

“The area (where I live now) is truly not the greatest area, but I have a roof over my kids’ heads,” Smith said. “They don’t have the freedom that I would like them to have to go out and play, but they’re happy.”

Smith first found out about the Home for a Hero project through a friend. She and her children attended the groundbreaking ceremony in September, but never imagined they would be selected to move into the home.

She tears up when she mentions how at one point she no longer qualified because she moved her family out of Hall County.

The one person who always believed the Wintergreen Court house would be theirs was Smith’s 4-year-old son, Dorrian.

“I think (Dorrian) knew from Day One, because he’s just been like ‘Are they done building our house yet?’” Smith joked. “I don’t even know how to put it in words. He had the faith before I did.”

Andi Harmon, director of operations for the faith-based organization, asserts that belief — and fate — were on the Smiths’ side from the very beginning.

“I searched for days trying to find a background for this (flier), but do you notice anything about that background? It’s got Air Force on it,” Harmon said, holding up the original flier for the Home for a Hero Project. “Tell me that God wasn’t working through that.”

Smith, a member of Greater Mission Outreach Church in Buford, “kept praying and I left it up to God” as she went through the process of filing her paperwork with Habitat.

Finding out she had been selected came as a long overdue moment of relief. 

“It was very emotional, very overwhelming, a little kind of shock, because I’ve been through a lot, and to have something great happen is just truly a blessing,” she said.

Her daughter Ellishiah, 7, best summarized the children’s reaction.

“I was excited, because we’re moving into a house that doesn’t have a problem with it,” she said.

The home stretch

The home does face a few final hurdles, which Ann Nixon, Habitat for Humanity of Hall County’s director, is confident the organization will be able to overcome.

“The one thing that we still need help with is the home is not fully funded,” Nixon said. “We are committed to finishing the house without that funding being in hand, but we’re still seeking the funding to help us pay for the expenses that we will be covering ourselves.”

The organization, which originally struggled to find a tenant, has already overcome its greatest challenge in finding Smith and her children.

“A lot of people will qualify, and that’s our mission, to get people qualified so we can end poverty housing across the world,” Harmon said. “But with Charmaine in particular, she is so deserving of this.”

Harmon points to Smith’s faith, her service to our country and how she’s raised her children as just a few of the reasons she was selected.

“She’s a success story, and we’re glad to be just a blip on the radar to get her where she’s going,” Harmon said. “She truly is a very special person.”

Words can describe Smith’s military service, her history, her love for her children and even her character, but words cannot describe the look on Smith’s face when asked what she would say to all the volunteers who put their time and effort into building her new home.

“It’s hard, but I really just want to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart, because they don’t have to do this,” she said. “Being in the will of God and living by faith and keeping God first, it changes your whole lifestyle. If they weren’t faith-based, there’s no telling where my kids would be, what else we would have to go through. So I am very thankful and appreciative and I don’t know them, but I love them all, because they don’t know what they’ve done for me and my family.”

To volunteer or make a donation to the “Home for a Hero” project, visit www.habitathallcounty.org.

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