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Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'
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Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'

Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'
Melissa Thompson credits Atlanta Habitat and WSB's Clark Howard for ‘saving her.’

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. 

WSB Radio
Today, Melissa Thompson loves where she lives: an immaculate three-bedroom home decorated in greys and jewel tones.
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Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'

Photo Credit: WSB Radio
Today, Melissa Thompson loves where she lives: an immaculate three-bedroom home decorated in greys and jewel tones.

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.

>>LISTEN TO VERONICA WATERS’ FULL ON-AIR REPORT BELOW.

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. 

WSB Radio
Melissa Thompson with WSB's Clark Howard.
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Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'

Photo Credit: WSB Radio
Melissa Thompson with WSB's Clark Howard.

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. 

Jeani Elbaum
In January of 2016, Thompson began building her home alongside volunteers.
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Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'

Photo Credit: Jeani Elbaum
In January of 2016, Thompson began building her home alongside volunteers.

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."

WSB Radio
Melissa Thompson can't say enough good things about Atlanta Habitat for Humanity.
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Building with Clark Howard: 'Atlanta Habitat saved me'

Photo Credit: WSB Radio
Melissa Thompson can't say enough good things about Atlanta Habitat for Humanity.

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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News

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  • An Atlanta woman who claimed to be disabled, but also worked as an exotic dancer, has pleaded guilty to Social Security fraud. Valencia Williams told the Social Security Administration that she was disabled and rarely left home, but the SSA found out that wasn’t true. Williams told the government she had extreme anxiety and depression and couldn’t even leave her room. She qualified for disability benefits. But actually, she was allegedly working at Stroker’s Adult entertainment in DeKalb County under the name Chrissy the Doll. In 2010, Williams started getting Social Security benefits for major depressive disorder and panic disorder, but she got adult entertainer permits from DeKalb County in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018. Prosecutors said Williams stole $60,000 in federal funds that should have been going to people who are actually unable to work.
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And while she said it was too early to tell how severe the outbreak will be in the U.S., she recommended businesses make contingency plans for employees to work from home. MORE: Stock market falls on coronavirus concern? Advisers still suggest calm Gov. Brian Kemp said he’s participated in two calls with President Donald Trump’s team and leaders from public health agencies and governors. He said he’s also in touch with county officials. “We’ll be ready for whatever comes. Hopefully it won’t be much, but if it, is we’ll be ready to respond to it,” Kemp said Wednesday. If coronavirus comes to Georgia, the state Department of Public Health will lead the charge against it. It said Wednesday it will adapt its detailed pandemic flu plan for a COVID-19 outbreak and that epidemiologists are on call 24/7 to help health care providers evaluate individuals with symptoms. 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The new strain also appears to be more contagious than the flu, which kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. Curtis Harris, director of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Disaster Management, said hospitals and health care facilities in the state have plans for sudden increases in patients, such as converting offices into treatment space. He said Georgia officials and health care facilities already communicate closely about how to limit outbreaks, including steps as simple as isolating patients with symptoms. Health care organizations and officials in seven Southeastern states did training exercises late last year about how to deal with a U.S. outbreak of Ebola, which has a much higher mortality rate. But space and surge capacity is a “perennial problem” at medical facilities, he added. If a large number of people are sick, isolating and quarantining patients may not be feasible. 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That includes Dr. Robert Geller, medical director of the Georgia Poison Control Center, who said the center answers a public health hotline and then alerts epidemiologists of potential outbreak cases. If coronavirus sweeps Georgia, Geller said, even restoring the budget cut wouldn’t do: “We’ll need more money, not less money.” Georgia’s health department pushed back, saying a $49,000 cut to Geller’s center was a fraction of its $1.2 million budget. That and the other cuts would come out of unrelated expenses such as a consultant whose work was complete, it said. Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, said budget cuts “do not in any way affect the Department’s ability to respond to a potential coronavirus case here in Georgia.” Eric Toner, a senior scholar at The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the U.S. overall is “reasonably well prepared” for a mild pandemic, although even a mild one could put stress on emergency departments and intensive care units. He added the toll on hospitals would be much greater if the virus is particularly deadly, such as during the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and millions around the world. “No hospital is well prepared for that,” Toner said, adding “a lot of people would not have the access to critical care they would need to keep them alive.” But most people wouldn’t need that kind of care, he said. The risk to the average healthy individual likely would still be relatively low, with most people having flu-like symptoms and recovering quickly, he predicted. -staff writer Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this article. » MORE: The flu more of a threat in Georgia than new coronavirus » RELATED: Atlanta’s Chinese community has especially deep worry about coronavirus
  • A metro Atlanta man said a twin-engine jet he was flying was having problems with its autopilot shortly before it crashed and killed four people earlier this month in northwest Georgia, according to a preliminary incident report released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board. The Cessna Citation disappeared from radar Feb. 8 hours before its remnants were found in a remote part of Gordon County.  The pilot, Roy Smith, 68, of Fayetteville, his son, 25-year-old Morgen Smith of Atlanta, the son’s girlfriend, 23-year-old Savannah Sims of Atlanta, and 63-year-old Raymond Sluk of Senoia were found among the wreckage, according to Gordon County Deputy Coroner Christy Nicholson.  According to Heidi Kemner, an air safety investigator for the NTSB, the jet departed from Atlanta Regional Airport-Falcon Field in Peachtree City about 9:45 a.m. and was headed for Nashville, Tennessee. It was snowing at the time, but it’s unclear if the weather was a factor in the crash.  The report revealed the plane was having issues maintaining its altitude and direction before it disappeared from radar.  An air traffic controller told the pilot to return to the height and direction they were supposed to be traveling, and the pilot said he was having problems with the autopilot. The controller asked if everything was under control, and the pilot said they were “OK now,” the report said.  RELATED: 4 dead in Gordon County plane crash The technological problems persisted and the plane once again strayed from its elevation and direction.  The air traffic controller again asked if everything was all right, and the pilot said they were “‘playing with the autopilot’ because they were having trouble with it,” the report said.  The controller suggested turning the autopilot off and hand-flying the plane, according to the report. The pilot rose to a higher altitude, but according to the report he was never able to get out of the clouds.  The pilot later told a second air traffic controller that they were having instrumental issues on the left side of the plane and were working from instruments on the right side.  RELATED: Metro Atlanta father, son among 4 victims of Gordon County plane crash The plane rose farther and started to make a left turn, when air traffic control suddenly lost contact with it. The controller tried to reach the plane “numerous times” but did not get a response, the report said.  The area in which the plane was found was so hilly that it was accessible only by foot, Gordon County Chief Deputy Robert Paris told AJC.com. “The plane was discovered in one of the most remote areas of our jurisdiction,” Paris said, calling the crash site terrain treacherous. “We had to go in in four-wheel drive vehicles and ATVs and we had to walk a long way after that. It’s only accessible by foot.”  The left wing was still attached to the body of the plane, but part of the right wing had been torn off, according to the NTSB report.  “Several sections of wing skin” were found along the path of debris, the report said.  It took more than 24 hours to locate all of the victims, AJC.com previously reported.  The NTSB has not released a conclusive cause of the crash. In other news: 
  • An Oklahoma man who was convicted last June of kidnapping his stepdaughter, holding her captive for 19 years and fathering her nine children has been sentenced to life in federal prison. Henri Michelle Piette, 65, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison for kidnapping and 360 months, or 30 years, for traveling with the intent to engage in sexual acts with a juvenile. He was also ordered to pay a $50,000 fine and $50,067 in restitution to his victim, Rosalynn Michelle McGinnis. The names of victims of sexual crimes are usually withheld, but McGinnis went public about her ordeal shortly before Piette’s October 2017 arrest in Mexico. Piette claimed he had married McGinnis, whom he kidnapped from her Porteau, Oklahoma, middle school in 1997, when she was 12. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, Piette had been in a relationship with McGinnis’ mother. >> Related story: Man accused of ‘marrying’ 11-year-old stepdaughter, holding her captive for 19 years. Piette’s sexual abuse of McGinnis began when she was about 11, while he still lived with her family in Wagoner, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. In a 2018 interview with 41 Action News in Kansas City, Missouri, McGinnis said she was around 10 when he raped her for the first time. “According to R. Doe (McGinnis), she remembered when she was around 11 years old, (Piette) took her to a van and married her,” the affidavit says. “She added Piette gave her a ring and (Piette’s) son, Toby Piette, officiated the marriage.” The then-preteen and her family later moved to a home in Porteau, and McGinnis was soon kidnapped. Prosecutors argued at trial that Piette spent the next two decades raping her repeatedly and abusing her physically and emotionally. The affidavit states that McGinnis told investigators she was “introduced to (Piette’s) children as their new mother.” Though they traveled to numerous places in the U.S. and Mexico, Piette would occasionally return with McGinnis to Oklahoma and force her to mail letters there so her family would believe she remained close to home, the court document says. Watch Rosalynn McGinnis talk about her ordeal below, courtesy of 41 Action News in Kansas City, Missouri, where she was born and now lives with her family. “The victim gave birth to nine children, the first being born in 2000 when she was 15 years old,” a news release from U.S. Attorney Brian J. Kuester said. “In July 2016, the victim was able to escape with her children to the United States Consular General Offices in Nogales, Mexico.” The FBI was notified of McGinnis’ allegations, and a federal investigation began. “The investigation revealed, and the victim testified at trial, that the defendant had moved her and their children dozens of times within the United States and Mexico,” Kuester’s news release said. “The defendant used numerous aliases and forced the victim to use aliases, dye her hair and wear glasses to change her appearance. He controlled the victim by extreme violence, threats of violence, and sexual abuse against her and her children.” In a 2017 interview with People magazine, McGinnis described being raped, beaten with baseball bats, stabbed, choked and shot during her captivity. “I knew that if I didn’t get out of there, I’d either go insane or I would end up dying and leaving my kids with that man,” McGinnis told the magazine. Piette was still at large in Mexico when McGinnis spoke to People. He was later captured and returned to Wagoner County to face prosecution. Once he was back in the U.S., Piette told Fox23 News in Tulsa he was innocent. “Most of it are lies,” he told the news station as he shuffled into a courtroom for a hearing, surrounded by deputies. “Ninety-nine percent are lies. I’m telling the truth.” Piette denied raping McGinnis. “I never raped any children. I made love to my wife,” Piette said. “We were married.” Read the affidavit outlining Piette’s crimes below.  Kuester said it is fitting that Piette’s sentence, like the “horrific memories” he left McGinnis and her children with, will last a lifetime. “Life in prison is a sentence the law reserves for the most serious offenders – offenders like Henri Michelle Piette,” the federal prosecutor said. “For 20 years he inflicted extreme physical and emotional abuse on the victim and her children. For 20 years she feared for her and her children’s lives.” McGinnis told 41 Action News that she felt great relief following Piette’s sentencing. She expressed similar sentiments last year following his guilty verdict. “I’m just so happy that he is put away where he can’t hurt anyone anymore,” McGinnis told the news station. The station reported that Oklahoma state officials took Piette into custody last week following the verdict so he can face state charges filed in Wagoner County.