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Soldier, family move into new Habitat house
Soldier returned home from Afghanistan to find his house had burned
Michael Walker pushes daughter Kassie, 4, center, and stepdaughter Haley Grooms, 8, on a swing set Sunday afternoon following the dedication of his new Habitat for Humanity home in East Hall County. Walker’s previous home was destroyed by fire on the day of his return from deployment in Afghanistan.

Army Spc. Michael Walker returned from deployment in Afghanistan a year ago, yet he's just now getting his homecoming.

On Sunday the Walker family, volunteers from Habitat for Humanity of Hall County and others gathered for the dedication of the family's newly built four-bedroom, two-bathroom house at 3838 Coker Road.

Last March, Walker learned his home had burned, only half an hour following his release from Fort Stewart.

"The fact that he came back after being 14 months overseas homeless and in a shelter, that's just wrong," said Clark Howard, Atlanta-based radio and TV consumer advocate and builder of more than 40 Habitat for Humanity houses.

The Walkers rented their previous residence, a mobile home, and until it burned had hoped to buy it. With the insurance money from the fire they were able to purchase the land but couldn't finance another mobile home because they didn't have adequate credit.

"We got to where we didn't know what we were going to do," said Walker's wife, Kim.

Habitat for Humanity of Hall County heard about the Walkers' story through an article in The Times.

Habitat contacted the Walkers and eventually approved them to receive a house, but funding was coming slowly. Then the organization got in touch with Howard.

During the dedication ceremony, Howard spoke to Walker and the crowd from the porch of the new house.

"When we got that phone call, there was no doubt in my mind that we'd be standing on this porch," he said.

Howard, whose radio program reaches 47 states, issued a challenge on-air. He said he'd match dollar-for-dollar contributions up to $30,000 to build the Walkers' house.

It took less than a week to raise the money.

But that was just the beginning.

The family put in 300 sweat-equity hours building their house. Walker, with a background in construction, had no problem pitching in.

"I roofed the whole house myself," he said.

The four Walker kids chipped in too, painting and hammering nails.

"When we first started building, I helped out hammering the nails and stuff," said Taylor Walker, 11.

The Walkers didn't do it alone; the family received help from many volunteers, including a student-based group, Habitat High.

Habitat High, lead by Rodney Presley through the Lanier Charter Career Academy, accepts students who have had at least two years in construction classes to participate in building Habitat houses. The students arrive at the construction site by 7:30 a.m. to work before heading off to class.

Seventeen-year-old Tyler Ward of Gainesville helped build the Walker house from the ground up, digging the footers and constructing the frame. He said he hoped kids younger than him will want to participate in Habitat projects as they get older.

"It puts this feeling in your heart that you can't find anywhere else," he said.

The dedication included prayer, song, and plenty of thanks. Walker was presented an oversized blue key and an engraved Bible, and the New Home Blessing was read.

Visitors toured the home, which smelled of pine wood and fresh paint. The living room and kitchen have hardwood floors and the bedrooms have soft, brown carpet. The walls are painted a coffee-and-cream color.

The furniture was donated; the Walkers lost all their possessions in the fire. Taylor Walker likes his new silver bunk bed, perfect for friends to come and spend the night. He's still got some decorating to do, and a rolled up poster sits on his window sill. He's pleased to have his own room.

"I like it," he said.

The Walkers have a no-interest, 20-year mortgage through Habitat for Humanity of Hall County. The organization uses money from its mortgages to fund other Habitat building projects.

Dee Ann Whitenton, construction supervisor and president of Habitat for Humanity of Hall County, said the organization was grateful for the opportunity to give back to a soldier and his family.

"Habitat is always such a great cause, but this was an extra great cause," she said.