LaTonya Riley, a grandmother of four and a breast cancer survivor, became a homeowner Wednesday, something she once thought was far beyond her reach.
“I think everything that’s happened to me these last six years was God divine,” she said after receiving keys to a three-bedroom, two-bath house she helped build, working with Habitat for Humanity of Seminole County and Greater Apopka.
“This is a dream come true because I never thought at this point in my life I’d be buying a house.”
After nearly two decades juggling motherhood and a low-wage job at McDonald’s, Riley was stricken with breast cancer, a health crisis that led her to the Facebook page of a cancer survivor who also was a Habitat volunteer.
She said the posts inspired her, despite an affordable housing crisis in Central Florida.
“Me being on my sick bed, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m tired of sitting here crying, having a pity party about my life’,” Riley said. “I wanted to own my own home and when I got into the Habitat program, I could see the light: there was a way.”
She found a better-paying job with Orange County Public Schools as a bus monitor.
Riley said she also worked to improve her credit rating; enrolled in required Habitat classes for home maintenance and financial responsibility; and donated 200 hours of “sweat equity,” working on a volunteer construction crew.
So did the youngest of her four kids, son Cameran Barnes, 18, who aspires to be a firefighter.
He balanced morning football practices with Apopka High School in July with the construction work.
“I just knew someday something good was gonna happen,” he said Wednesday. “This is that day.”
The home on Short Street in south Apopka occupies a formerly vacant, quarter-acre patch donated as surplus land to Habitat by Orange County, which kicked in another $15,000 for construction costs from its Housing For All Trust Fund.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings handed the keys to Riley and pledged to help her son with his career.
Two of Demings’ sons are firefighters.
Habitat selects homeowners based on an applicant’s level of need and ability to repay a mortgage through an affordable payment plan. Riley’s payment will be less than 35% of her gross monthly income, said Habitat spokesperson Muffet Robinson, who did not disclose the payment.
Habitat houses are sold to home buyers at a discount possible because the nonprofit uses grant money and other sources to keep the prices of homes affordable for the recipients.
In fiscal year 2022-23, Habitat Seminole-Apopka closed on 16 homes, four more than in 2021-22.
Robinson said the organization hopes to close on 22 homes by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2023-24.
Suzanne Weinstein, president and CEO of the Orlando Credit Union, was among the volunteers who helped build the house and then turned out Wednesday to cheer on Riley and her family. Weinstein said the home is literally filled with good wishes as all volunteers wrote messages on wood planks and studs, now covered by drywall and siding.
Riley’s son said he wrote, “Mom, I love you.”
Riley wrote, “Thank you, God.”