Faith Wilson-Jay had less than $100 to her name five years ago when she walked into Resurrection House in St. Petersburg. Living in a converted storage room in her parents' small home, Wilson-Jay was trying to eke out a living while raising her young son, AJ. "I worked as a nanny under the table just to get diapers," she said.
With the help of a Resurrection House caseworker, Wilson-Jay, now 32, penned a list of goals: get certified in child development, repay a loan, find affordable housing, get her career off the ground.
The list was long and daunting for Wilson-Jay, a Canadian immigrant who fled an abusive marriage when AJ, now 6, was 4 months old.
While living at Resurrection House, a nondenominational, faith-based transitional housing program, Wilson-Jay crossed off each item on her list and started focusing on one more major goal: becoming a homeowner.
Last weekend, Wilson-Jay found that wish fulfilled when she got the keys to her new Habitat for Humanity home in Tarpon Springs.
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At Resurrection House, women who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness get a free place to stay while they get back on their feet.
They learn to pay off their debt, are encouraged to go to college or get vocational training, and get life-skills instruction and case management.
In exchange, they must abide by all of the rules laid out in a 2-inch-thick binder: no drinking on campus, mandatory attendance at life-skills classes, no unauthorized purchases that will carry them further into debt.
"This is a reality-based program. It's a laboratory for real life. The habits and skills you acquire, you can take back to the real world with you," said Resurrection House president Cynthia Sinclair.
Wilson-Jay went back to school and earned her child development associate credential. Resurrection House officials signed off on her proposal to open a home day-care business, where she watched the children of other participants in the program.
Wilson-Jay said her job is perhaps the world's most important.
"I get to shape the next generation," she said.
She developed an interest in sign language as a young girl and now passes those communication skills to the infants and preschoolers she watches.
Her approach to child-rearing emphasizes personal responsibility. "You want to give them the choice so they can own it and own the consequences as well," she said.
Wilson-Jay named her business Agape Kids Care. The word "agape" means unconditional love in Greek.
"Although I was raised in a loving home, I faced situations of abuse and never really felt loved unconditionally or accepted unconditionally."
Long ago, she decided the fate would not be the same for AJ.
"My child is going to know that he's loved unconditionally," she said.
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Her first glimpse of the empty, sandy Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County lot that would soon belong to her came about a year ago.
"That night was magical. I drove up and saw the 'watch for children' sign and I knew I was home.''
She signed an agreement with Habitat for Humanity and put together an inspiration album filled with photos of the house being built, the design plans and drawings that showed the layout of the furniture.
She took with her all of the furniture that filled her apartment at Resurrection House, a gift bestowed on those who graduate from the program.
AJ's godfather donated a lawn mower and a friend gave her a master bedroom set. She even got the bushes she wanted for her front yard.
"God just took care of every little detail," she said.
Wilson-Jay put in more than the 250 "sweat equity hours" required of Habitat participants. She worked on another home before her lot was ready.
"Faith is, I think, very typical of the grit, determination and perseverance that all of our Habitat families show," said Habitat of Humanity of Pinellas County development director Bart Cobb. "I had the opportunity to meet Faith when she first entered our program and have watched her grow through the process and it was just a real joy to see her get the home."
Wilson-Jay helped build her 1,300-square-foot home as the new Tarpon Springs Elementary School was being built four blocks away.
She and AJ, a first-grader, walk to school in the mornings with their new beagle, Casey.
"It's really fun, but the only thing he does is smell a lot of stuff," AJ said while playing golf on his Wii one recent afternoon in front of the front window his mom helped install.
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Wilson-Jay is nearing completion on a bachelor's degree in Christian education and deaf culture and is working to get her home day care business off the ground in Tarpon Springs. She's already gone through an inspection and received a temporary permit from the Pinellas County Licensing Board.
"You don't plan to have bumps in the road,'' she said. "A lot of people don't have a support system to fall back on. Without Resurrection House and Habitat, life would be extremely difficult for us."
She finds respite in the privacy and independence she's gained as a new homeowner.
"I take my Bible out there on the porch, (and) my coffee. I watch the sunrise. Then I go back out when AJ goes to bed and I watch the sunset," she said. "Those are the moments of rest and peace that I haven't had in a long time."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4162.