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For Julie Hernandez, it is easy to count how many years she has been a Section 8 resident.
She first moved into a rent-subsidized apartment in October of 2001. It was shortly after she had given birth to her first child, Arianna, who is now 18 and a student at Wilson Community College.
At the time, Hernandez was living in Clearwater, Florida, working at McDonald’s and wasn’t earning enough to make ends meet. She had tried to supplement her income by joining the Army Reserves, but wasn’t able to make it work because she was a single parent and had no one at the time to look after her daughter when she would be away.
She qualified for the federal government’s Section 8 housing voucher program and so started a 17-year journey as a client of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It is a journey that will end on Sunday when Hernandez — who is now 42 and in addition to Arianna has a second daughter, Alyssa, who is a student at Hunt High School — moves her family into her new home in Saratoga. It is a home that she has poured years of her life into getting and is being made possible by the Wilson Area Habitat for Humanity.
“It was Christmas 2016 when they told me welcome to the Habitat family,” said Hernandez. “The girls will get their own rooms and I will have a master bedroom and bath. This is what I have worked for.”
Hernandez, like all other Wilson Area Habitat for Humanity partner families, has provided more than 200 hours of volunteer time or “sweat equity.” She has saved up a down payment for her house and will pay mortgage every month. Habitat homeowners pay no interest on their loans, saving them thousands over the lifetime of that loan.
Hernandez will be the first to say it hasn’t been an easy road to homeownership and that it has had its share of ups and downs and false starts.
She moved to Wilson in 2010 to follow her mom and started working for UTC Aerospace Systems, where her mom’s husband worked.
In 2013, Hernandez decided to go back to school at Wilson Community College, first in criminal justice, and then moved to WCC’s surgical tech program. She said she went through all of the training but froze in the operating room and “just couldn’t do it.”
So, she says, she had to toss that training away and start again in criminal justice, where she is currently working on her degree. Although the academic detour definitely slowed her progress, it didn’t stop it, and her doggedness in pursuing her dreams was noticed by her instructors who recommended her for an office assistant job at the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office. She got the job in September 2016, and has worked there ever since.
Even as Hernandez was working toward her degree and finding a full-time job, she was also working on trying to become a homeowner.
“The Wilson Housing Authority and the Section 8 program gave me a safety net that I have needed, but I knew that at some point I wanted to move out on my own,” Hernandez said.
Through the housing authority, she said she learned about the homeownership classes offered through the Wilson Community Improvement Association and the chance to have what she had saved toward a house matched by the organization if she completed the classes.
“The chance to get that match is why I went to the homeownership classes,” Hernandez said.
Through the WCIA, she also learned about Habitat.
“I was at the step of looking for a house and I was asked if I was interested in Habitat, she said. “I said ‘Of course — a brand-new house, who wouldn’t want that?’”
“Julie and her family were out at the build site every week, along with hundreds of volunteers from the community. This was my first experience building a home, too. We were led by our wonderful building coordinator, Aaron Phillips, who broke down the process into weekly steps. We started with a foundation and eventually had a finished home that Julie and her girls will soon enjoy for years to come,” said Elisabeth Farnsworth, executive director for Wilson Area Habitat for Humanity.
Kelly Vick, the president and CEO of the Wilson Housing Authority, said Hernandez’s story is inspiring because of all of the work she has done to get to this point.
“We are proud of her because she has used the voucher program to help her achieve her dreams,” said Vick. “She is working on her degree, has found a full-time job and now will be moving into a new home and no longer needs our help. That is what we hope for all of our residents.”
Hernandez acknowledges that her long journey to homeownership and greater stability for her and her family has involved a lot of help from a lot of people. She says she is grateful for all of it.
“I have gone through a lot to get to this point and there are lots of people who have helped me along the way,” Hernandez said. “But it is good to know that I will soon be going home to a house that is truly mine.”
This story was provided by Wilson Area Habitat for Humanity and written by Habitat director Elisabeth Farnsworth and Tim Rogers of the Wilson Housing Authority.