DADE CITY — Kathy Thames and her family were beaming as they approached the tidy beige home with white trim. Choking back tears, Thames' daughter Jermeka Lewis took a moment to look at the photo on the back of the home dedication brochure.
The picture showed Lewis' sister Letara Bennett and her husband, Michael, who were killed in a May crash on Interstate 4 near Plant City.
"I know my sister is smiling down on us today," Lewis told the crowd gathered Tuesday evening for the first Thanksgiving home dedication by Habitat for Humanity of East and Central Pasco. "This year has been so tough for all of us. But it's such a blessing when I see my mother walk through the door of this house."
The couple's death devastated the family. It also brought practical implications. Thames took in three of her daughter's children — Ninia Thames, 15; Tommy Green, 12; and Desmin Green, 11 — moving them in to the two-bedroom, one-bath Lacoochee apartment she shared with her 19-year-old son, Ahmad Thames.
"We've just been taking things one day at a time," said Kathy Thames, 51, who works as a cashier at Wendy's. "We pray to God for strength."
Thames had a lot of love to offer her orphaned grandchildren. What she didn't have was the room to raise them. So earlier this year, she approached Habitat to apply for a new home.
"When a story like this comes across our table," said east Pasco Habitat chief operating officer Crystal Lazar, "it reminds us of why we work here at Habitat."
In July, Habitat officials learned one of their member families was moving out of state, freeing up a Dade City Habitat house built in 2008. They immediately thought of the Thames family.
Habitat volunteers and staff members set about repainting and remodeling the Coleman Avenue home, which has four bedrooms, two bathrooms and 1,155-square-feet of living space. And they had a specific target date in mind for the home's completion.
"We wanted to get them in by Thanksgiving, so the family could sit together around the table in their new home," said Stephanie Bracknell Black, director of development and public relations at east Pasco Habitat. "With everything they've been through this year, we wanted to give them this gift, this comfort for the holidays."
On Tuesday afternoon, Habitat staff and volunteers gathered at the Thames home to put the finishing touches on the house. Then they stood back and watched as the family approached from the street.
During the invocation, Habitat ReStore director Jere Ferguson acknowledged the "mix of emotion" that permeated the event.
"This Thanksgiving the Thames family will have empty places at their dinner table," he said. "With this home we hope to help fill the empty places in their hearts."
Ginny Solberg, the Habitat director of family services who first met the Thames family and processed their home application, fought back tears as she performed the house's litany of dedication, expressing a wish that the family have "rest, shelter and laughter" in their new home.
Terena Jones, Habitat financial director, and Dustin Gill, Habitat volunteer coordinator, presented the family with symbolic gifts that included a broom, salt, sugar, a candle and a Bible.
"Everything is possible for him who believes," said Jones, smiling as she quoted Mark 9:23.
Indeed, the Thames family found their new home came stocked with gifts, including a quilt courtesy of East Pasco Quilters, $230 worth of groceries courtesy of Wesley Chapel Toyota and Honda, a dining room table courtesy of the Habitat ReStore, new kitchenware courtesy of Habitat, and canned goods donated by those in attendance at the dedication.
The family smiled and laughed as they toured their new home. Jermeka Lewis joked that nephews Tommy and Desmin would turn their new back yard into a football field. Ninia said she loved her new room and declared her home "beautiful." And Grandma agreed.
"This is a home," Kathy Thames said softly. "It's a big help. And it's a blessing."