LOCKLAND, Ohio -- For the first time in her life, Robin Jones feels like she truly is home for the holidays.
She and her kids moved into their new Habitat for Humanity house in November. And being a homeowner has made such a difference in their lives already that sometimes Jones has to remind herself that she's not dreaming.
"It really does feel amazing. You just wake up with joy every day," she told me. "Everybody just gets happy when we walk in this place."
It's not just because Jones got to pick all the colors, carpets and countertops in her tidy Lockland house. It's because being a homeowner has given her the kind of financial stability she has wanted since she was a little girl growing up in government-subsidized housing on the West Side of Cincinnati.
The last townhouse Jones rented cost her well over $1,000 per month: $854 per month in rent, $35 for water, $15 for trash collection and a monthly utility bill of more than $200 because of the old windows in the place.
Now her mortgage with Habitat is $274.38 per month. Even with taxes, homeowners insurance and utilities included, her monthly housing costs now are just over $500 total. With the extra money she now has, she has been able to add money to her 401k, purchase term life insurance so her kids can pay off the house if she dies prematurely and even join a travel club so she can put away money each month for family vacations. There will be more presents under the tree this year, too, she said.
"I went from one paycheck being designated to rent and then another being designated to how we survive to now," said Jones, who is 43. "I feel like I can breathe now. I can actually live."
Families who apply to work with Habitat are selected based on: their finances and debt-to-income ratio; their willingness to help build or remodel the homes themselves; and their financial need, said Christine Carter, the local organization's family services coordinator.
"For us to have the opportunity to be a part of the positive changes in their life that come from the stability of owning your own home is incredible," Cincinnati Habitat CEO Ed Lee told me.
The day I interviewed Jones, her house was decked out for Christmas with lights out front, a tree in the basement and an inflatable Santa in the living room.
Jones gave me a tour of the house, showing me which rooms she helped frame and explaining how she shopped at thrift stores for special knobs, appliances and artwork so her house could be just as she envisioned it.
"My whole life, I've been trying to get myself in a position to buy a place for my children to call home," said Jones. "This is our forever home for them."
Jones still works hard providing in-home care to people with disabilities. She has two jobs -- one full-time and one part-time. And while she used to need both just to meet her monthly expenses, now she works both to save, get ahead and provide the kind of stability for her children that she used to dream about.
"She's honestly an awesome person," Jones' daughter, Teonna, said of her mother. "She overcame so much, and she deserves every blessing that comes her way in every manner."
A childhood dream realized
Both mother and daughter started to tear up at the thought of those hardships and how far the family has come.
"When you're going through a storm, you cannot figure out why -- why this is happening," Jones said. "And to wake up here, I understand. Because it was for me to get here."
Jones has three children: Teonna, who is 25; Ladale, who is 19; and Jacoby, who is 14. The two boys have separate bedrooms in their mom's new house. Jones has her own room, of course. And she has made the fourth bedroom into a prayer room, where she goes over her budget, counts her blessings and thinks about her journey and where it has taken her family.
"It's so hard to balance when you're a single mom, and you're trying to keep food, shelter and transportation," she said. "I know how it is not to want to live in low-income housing so that's why I always paid a bit more for rent."
But now Jones can walk into the home she helped build and feel the love and stability it provides. She wrote scriptures on the sub-floors as she helped build the house, she said.
"When I come in, I feel like the word of God is under my feet in my house," she said.
And greater financial stability hasn't been the only benefit of being a homeowner, Jones said.
"Once I got into the Habitat program, everything just started transforming in my life," she said. "I got a promotion. Then I got a raise at work. I think it boosted my confidence level."
Now Jones is looking forward to help other families build their Habitat houses.
But first, she gets to wake up on Christmas morning in her new home, surrounded by family.
"This has been my dream since I was a little kid, and my aunt bought a house in Silverton," she said. "But life was just taking place, and I was never able to accomplish it until I found the Habitat program."
It's the Christmas wish she always wanted, and it's better than she imagined it could be.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.