This Thanksgiving is more than a little special for Nyshawn Jenkins and her family. When they celebrate on Thursday, they will do so in their new home in Sugar Hill — a home the family has thanks to Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity.
“(This) has been a life-changing experience,” Jenkins said. ”Without Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity, I would not have been able to accomplish one of my biggest goals — becoming a homeowner.”
While it is a new experience for Jenkins, it’s also a new one for Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity. Jenkins is the first veteran homeowner for the organization. Jenkins, who spent almost 10 years in the military, went through a program geared toward veterans, attending a workshop and, along with her family, putting in 250 hours of sweat equity into the project, working alongside volunteers to renovate the house.
“I had no idea my decision to join the U.S. Army over 20 years ago would continue to benefit me and my family today,” she said. “I am eternally grateful for my new family — Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity — and every person on their team.
“They have made an enormous impact on my life.”
Brent Bohanan hopes his organization can make that same effect on more veterans in the county. The executive director of Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity said Jenkins’ home is only the beginning when it comes to helping veterans.
“We are so excited to finally welcome a veteran into the Gwinnett Habitat family and for the opportunity to serve and honor the Jenkins family through our program,” he said. “This was made possible by the generous donation of a home from an anonymous donor that wanted the proceeds from its sale used to build homes for veterans in our community. This is the first of many homes we plan to build in partnership with deserving veterans in our community.”
Jenkins, who is a bus driver for Gwinnett County Public Schools, said she tried to secure a home through traditional means but could not meet the financial requirements. “I felt defeated and broken,” she said. But the Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity program for veterans gave her hope.
The chance to own her own home has her feeling whole again. And the opportunity to work alongside the volunteers had a huge effect on her and her family as well, she said. Jenkins said Ky, 15, Laila, 13, and Ellis, 9, learned a lot by physically working on the house and interacting with the many volunteers who helped make the project possible.
One interaction particularly stood out.
“When I witnessed my son Ky ask one of the Georgia Gwinnett College student volunteers: ‘What is college like?’ I knew this was exactly where he needed to be,” Jenkins said. “At that moment I knew he was looking toward his future and seeking advice, not just listening to me tell him: ‘You have to go to college.’”
These projects also have an effect on the volunteers. Laura Rodriguez, who is a volunteer coordinator for the organization, said it that was especially apparent with veterans who volunteered to help.
“There was a different energy with the veteran volunteers,” she said. “They wanted to help one of their own. It was like helping a family member.”
Bridgette Simon agrees. She works for the Military Professional Veterans Association at the CDC.
“We had a really great time working with Nyshawn. We had always wanted to volunteer on a Habitat build, but the opportunity never came up until now,” Simon said. “The cherry on top of this experience was volunteering on a veteran build. Even though we love to banter among ourselves, being a veteran is the glue that holds us together regardless of our branch of service. We take care of our own. We are family. We pay it forward.”
Jenkins said the generosity and kindness of the volunteers is something she’ll remember this Thanksgiving and long thereafter.
“Their smiles, encouragement, overwhelming support and faith in me has changed my outlook on life,” she said. “I plan to be a lifelong volunteer and supporter of Gwinnett Habitat for Humanity for many years to come.”