Leaving public housing for their own home
For most people, getting a piece of cardboard for Christmas is the equivalent of a lump of coal.
For Deborah Finklea, it was perfect.
That piece of cardboard, shaped like a house key, was a symbol of something she's wanted for years: becoming a homeowner.
Finklea and two of her children will soon be moving into a HabiJax home near Edward Waters College.
She received the "key" Sunday during the Jacksonville Jaguars game, where she and several family members received rock star-like treatment. (The Jaguars were one of her sponsors during the process.)
The family was able to go on the field before the game, saw Jaguars owner Shad Khan ("But we didn't get to meet him," she said.) and watched the game from a suite.
"We felt privileged, like we were up here with the boy boys," she said. "Everything they gave me, I kept."
The experience was a little overwhelming for the 49-year-old Jacksonville woman.
"As the young people say, 'OMG,'" Finklea said. "That's all I could say Sunday was 'OMG.'"
Getting there wasn't easy.
Finklea has lived in public housing for 15 years. She applied for a HabiJax home several years back, but it didn't work out.
"I'm a Christian," said Finklea, a member of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church. "I guess it wasn't the right time."
She worried about applying a second time but made the cut. That was just the beginning of the work for Finklea.
There are more than a dozen workshops to attend, with topics such as budgeting, estate planning and consumer awareness.
Then there's the requirement to put in 300 sweat-equity hours. Applicants can work at construction sites or at the ReStore, where new and used home improvement items are sold at reduced prices.
Finklea's work at several construction sites included putting in small hedges, spreading mulch and washing down the exterior of a house.
"Nothing really major," she said. "The big people that really know what they're doing do that."
At her house, she did some painting and final cleanup. A group of EverBank employees also did work there.
Her new three-bedroom home on Rushing Street is finished but Finklea has to complete her sweat-equity hours before the family can move in.
Finklea's job as a cashier at the dining room facility at CSX Southpoint limits when she can work toward the 300-hour goal.
As does caring for her 25-year-old daughter, Michelle, who has Down syndrome, and her 18-year-old son, Marcus, who was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. (She also has an older son, Lamar, who is 27.)
Marcus and Michelle will move into the new ranch-style home with Finklea.
She has enjoyed each step of the homebuilding process, including being able to pick out the style of her home and all of the colors.
Finklea started taking pictures of the site when it was just dirt and continued for the next month as the frame went up, the beige siding went on and the burgundy shutters were hung.
"Every time I went back, of course, I cried," she said.
Those memories are kept in a scrapbook.
Finklea is scheduled to close on the home Feb. 20, about three weeks after she turns 50.
A real house key to replace the cardboard one will be a perfect belated birthday present.