Army veteran Nikita Wilson took a deep breath and then burst into tears as she stepped through the front door of her new home while a crowd of supporters cheered her on.
It was a big move for the staff sergeant. A few years ago, Wilson found herself living in a homeless shelter after being evicted from her Tampa apartment.
On Tuesday, the 33-year-old was handed the keys to a fully furnished three-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Pine Hills from Bank of America and the Veterans Association of Real Estate Professionals.
And the best part, Wilson said, is that the home is mortgage free.
“It’s amazing and I really love it,” Wilson said with tears. “This is something that I won’t every have to think about again: No notices on the door. No questions about ‘am I going to be able to pay this month?’ I won’t have to be concerned about those types of things. I can now just be free to help people like I want.”
Marisa Carnevale-Henderson, senior vice president for Bank of America, said many veterans find it difficult transitioning into society — including finding housing — after serving overseas.
“We recognize the challenges that veterans face in entering civilian life,” she said.
Since 2012, Bank of America has partnered with several nonprofit veterans organizations — including Veterans Association of Real Estate Professionals — to provide 2,400 homes to military service members across the country.
Wilson’s freshly painted gray house with white trim and an American flag hanging near the front door is tucked in a quiet neighborhood near an Orange County elementary school.
About a year ago, the home was abandoned and in disrepair. There were holes in the walls. Windows were boarded. Homeless squatters would use the house as a place to spend the night.
An army of volunteers with the veterans association spent the past six months renovating the house for a veteran to move in.
George Freelove, president of the association’s Central Florida chapter, said veterans apply and are vetted for a new home by his organization. They’re evaluated on a factors including financial need, community service and military service.
Since 2012, the association has donated 37 homes to veterans across the country, including two in Central Florida.
As Wilson walked around her new home, she gasped at the marble counter tops and stainless-steel appliances in the new kitchen. The living room had new sofas, end tables and a floor lamp. A white table in the dining room had place mats and china set out for four. Each of the three bedrooms had large beds covered with new linens and blankets.
“Oh my gosh,” Wilson said. “This is just too much.”
Wilson served in the Army from 2004 to 2014 and was stationed at Fort Meade, Md., and at Army bases in Germany. For the last two years of her military career, Wilson served as a victim advocate with the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Team, where she worked one-on-one with survivors of sexual assault and their families.
Today, she works as a veteran peer care coordinator for Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
Wilson said she looked forward to spending the night in her new home.
“This is me putting my roots down [in Orlando],” she said. “It’s looks like it’s an amazing community. And I’m excited to explore it.”
Her favorite part of her new house?
“Honestly, it’s the living room,” she said. “I love the yellow. The yellow. I love it.”
© 2019 The Orlando Sentinel
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.