Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'

"I started hating coming home. When you start hating where you live, it's time to go."

Today, Melissa Thompson loves where she lives: an immaculate three-bedroom home decorated in greys and jewel tones, with a long front porch and a spacious backyard that's the perfect place for cookouts and her granddaughter's games, and a neighbor who not only greeted her with a pound cake when she moved in, but cut low trees between their houses--without permission--just so she could keep an eye on the happenings next door.

But in 2015, Thompson was a 45-year-old, living in a two-bedroom apartment with her son and granddaughter; the young girl alternately slept in a room with her dad or her grandmother. She had lost both her parents within months of each other; the grief ripped most of her family apart to the point where some were not on speaking terms with others.

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She spiraled into depression, eating emotionally and gaining weight and worrying her doctor. Thompson was sick of apartment life and neighbors who didn't seem to care about the property where they lived when she applied, and was approved, to become a homeowner with Atlanta Habitat for Humanity.

"I knew financially, I couldn't afford a house the traditional way," says Thompson. "And what I mean by that: Where can you get a house with no interest built from the ground up? So I went through the program and I got approved."

Atlanta Habitat for Humanity offers qualified applicants the opportunity to build and buy a quality, affordable, energy-efficient home in select neighborhoods with a 30-year, zero-interest mortgage. So armed with the organization's financial and home education classes, her savings, and backed by hundreds of volunteer hours of what Atlanta Habitat calls her "sweat equity," Thompson plunged ahead.

She was thrilled to learn that her her home's sponsor was Clark Howard, the consumer guru whose advice she and her late mom always follow and whose other Atlanta Habitat home builds she admits "stalking" during the process, dreaming about what could be hers one day, how she'd decorate, what color appliances she wanted.

"He's the number-one people want as their sponsor," she confides.

The acceptance into Atlanta Habitat's program also gave her hope and permission to dream. She set goals and began taking care of herself again and looking forward to the future.

In January of 2016, Thompson began building her home alongside volunteers. She remembers pounding in the first nail of what would be her three-bedroom, two-bath ranch home--or at least, trying to--and her son laughing at her attempt.

"You put the first nail into your foundation at the warehouse," Thompson explains. "Simple job! Just nail it, just tap.

"I missed the entire nail and everything. And he said, 'You had one job to do, Mom! One job!'" she laughs. "You start, you build, you paint. The only thing I didn't do to my house was the insulation. That's itchy."

For eight Saturdays that winter, Thompson and various teams of volunteers worked on the house; the only weather that stops construction is dangerously hard rainstorms. And every day on her way home from work, Thompson would drive by her lot, park, and marvel at the way the house was coming along.

As it turns out, Howard's sponsorship made for special bonuses in the house.

"I had Clark. With him, I got an additional dishwasher, and garbage disposal, and ceiling fans in the bedrooms, and mattresses. Different perks. And that's something he got his sponsors to do, which was awesome!

"When I say he's highly sought, it's like, 'I gotta time it because he builds in January! I want him!'" Thompson laughs. "Trust me, he is. And he was a joy. Every Saturday he was out here with us, in the cold, too, and I enjoyed it."

Through all that, she says, she was delighted to know that Clark Howard is the same person in person that he appears to be on TV. A friend who was one of the volunteers on her home asked excitedly, "Do you think it'll be possible if I ask him some questions?" It was. Clark answered every one of her friend's queries. She was sad that her mom was no longer around to meet him.

While Atlanta Habitat also rehabs homes and provides repairs for some, Thompson says she wouldn't have traded the new-construction experience for the world.

"It's the longest eight weeks of your life, to a person who's ready to move in! But it's so worth it," Thompson says.

When Dedication Day came, Thompson was excited and happy. She spent the first night in her new home without any bed covers, which she'd forgotten to buy. But waking up in the chilly new home of her own was worth it, she says, as she listened to the creaks and cracks of the new home settling. She walked around and gazed at everything, grateful, because "I really never thought I'd be able to afford a home." Asked to compare that joyful feeling to something else, she says it was equal only to "the day I had my son."

Melissa Thompson can't say enough good things about Atlanta Habitat for Humanity.

"I speak highly of it because it is a good program. It helps a lot of people to have a home. I know it's a lot of people out there who probably feel like I felt: 'Couldn't afford a home.' And you can. You really can," says Thompson. She says people don't always know what Habitat has to offer.

"They think you're getting this little basic house and then when they come in my house, they're blown away. I'm like, 'What did you think I was getting?!' I got a three-bedroom, two-bath house with yard. Now I've got two girlfriends applying for the program."

She believes that she would still be able to meet her house payment even if her job circumstances took a turn for the worse, and she credits the program for that.

"Thirty years seems like a long time, but it's 30 years that I can pay my mortgage," she says. Thompson loves Atlanta Habitat so much that she says if she comes into money, she's going to sponsor builds herself. She's already convinced the higher-ups at her job to sponsor one.

While her ranch home's walls can't talk, she has a story about each one, remembering the people who helped put them up and paint them along the way.

"When I say I love my house, I really love my house," says Thompson. "It's not a day that goes by that I'm not thankful for it. I sit out there on that porch and one day if you're riding by, you might see me out there. I sit out on the porch and we have the grill going and we just have a good time."

Thompson was healthier, bringing her family together again, hosting a holiday dinner late that year. Her doctor was once again happy when she went for checkups. Today, nearly four years later, she describes herself as "at peace."

"That's why I say Habitat saved me," Thompson says. "And I truly believe that."

This year, Howard is building three houses with Atlanta Habitat, starting Jan. 16. The homes will be built in Sylvan Hills alongside three home-buyers and hundreds of volunteers over the next eight Saturdays.

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