Mauhia Burden (center) examines the closing documents as his mother and Bucs running back Warrick Dunn complete the process of making Beverly Mitchell a first-time homeowner
As his mother struggled to hold back tears, Kenneth Mitchell stared at her intently, his mouth hanging open, obviously awestruck by the emotion of the moment.
Beverly Mitchell stood in front of a tidy, cream-colored, three-bedroom house, searching for the right words and the composure to say them. Those in the audience looked around, their eyes caught by the poinsettias on the front lawn, the crimson ribbon stretched across the front doorstep and the giant, red Tampa Bay Buccaneers banner hanging over the garage door.
But Kenneth Mitchell's eyes were transfixed on his mother. It was clear, even to him, that this was one of the most important moments of his 12-year-old life.
Beverly Mitchell, flanked by sons Kenneth and Mauhia Yadin Burden (7) and daughter Kenisha German (8), was attempting to explain to the gathered audience what it meant to be involved in Warrick Dunn's Homes for the Holidays program. In a moment, she would cut that ribbon and, for the first time in her life, become a homeowner.
On Tuesday, one week before Christmas, Dunn, the Buccaneers' Pro Bowl running back, provided three single-mother families with keys and deeds to their respective properties as part of his ongoing Homes for the Holidays program. Through this program, established in Dunn's rookie season of 1997, he has helped 28 single mothers become first-time homeowners in Tampa/St. Petersburg and his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Mitchell was the 28th, and she entered her house and signed the closing documents early Tuesday afternoon, after Dunn had presided over two similar events in St. Petersburg in the morning. Earlier in the day, Raytina Adams and her four children – sons Raymond Adams, Rayni Adams and Alphonso White and daughter Raymeka Adams – had moved into their new home in St. Petersburg. Shortly after, Bonnie Davila and her two daughters, Katelyn and Rebekah, had done the same with their new house.
It was, said Dunn, 'a joyous day.'
In each case, Dunn helped the family by providing the down payment on the home loan and stocking each house with furniture and other necessities, provided by such partners as Publix Super Markets, Home Depot, Badcock Furniture and Tech Skills. Among the items inside the houses, in addition to a full set of furniture for each room, were dishes, answering machines, appliances, pots and pans, laundry detergent, food, lamps, vacuum cleaners, bed linens, bath towels and much, much more. Each house was ready to be lived in.
"I put them in a position to succeed, to become stable, to try to better their lives, move forward and better their kids' lives," said Dunn. "It's not about me, it's about a mother and her family."
In Tampa, he stood in the driveway of Ms. Mitchell's new West Tampa house and explained why he has made such a commitment to this ongoing cause. As the oldest of six children growing up in a variety of places in Baton Rouge, Dunn knew his mother, Betty Smothers, dreamed of owning a home for her and her family.
Unfortunately, it was a dream still unrealized when Smothers, a veteran police officer, was killed while working her second job as a security guard in 1993.
Dunn's Homes for the Holidays program was crafted around the memory of his mother and her dreams. As such, he tends to view the moment of the family entering its new home from the single mother's point of view.
"This day wouldn't be possible without Ms. Mitchell's help, without her allowing me to help her," he said. "She's the one who's going through the process of becoming a homeowner, the American Dream. She's in the process of raising kids and trying to better their lives. Today is not about me, but about her giving back to her family. I'm happy that I'm able to help. This means as much as me as it means to her."
And with that, Dunn turned to Mitchell, smiled broadly, pulled a key out of his pocket ceremoniously and handed it to the new homeowner. As the crowd cheered, Mitchell accepted the key and a hug for Dunn, then searched for a way to express her feelings.
At first, she struggled to do so.
"Words cannot explain the way I feel," said Mitchell, grabbing onto Dunn's hand for support and looking at him through blurry eyes. "You just don't know what you mean to me. The words will just not come out of my mouth."
Eventually they did, though, and they were simple and to the point.
"Thank you," she said. "This is truly a dream come true, to be able to walk into my own home, something I can call home. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Mitchell then cut the ribbon and used the key from Dunn to unlock her front door for the first time. Inside, in a living furnished with a sofa set, tables and an entertainment system, a fully-decorated Christmas tree with a blinking star on the top greeted the family.
From there, Mitchell and her children toured the rest of the house – kitchen, master bedroom, the boys' bedroom, Kenisha's bedroom, bathroom and laundry room – exclaiming in excitement over the added touches provided by the Homes for Holidays sponsors. A freshly-baked apple pie on the kitchen table completed the atmosphere.
The youngest of 11 children, Mitchell had never before owned her own home. The same was true for Ms. Adams and Ms. Davila. Said Davila, in summing up the enormous change in lifestyle made possible by Dunn's caring, "I'm used to sleeping on a mattress on the floor."
Dunn finds single mothers like Davila through existing housing programs in the community. In St. Petersburg, he worked with the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation, which is a partnership between the Bank of America Community Development Corporation and St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc.
In Tampa, Dunn worked with the City of Tampa's Challenge Fund Loan Program and Tampa Mayer Dick Greco's 'Own-A-Home' program. All initiatives afford low-income families and first-time homebuyers the opportunity to purchase homes at below-market interest rates. Dunn selects mothers that have already qualified for a home loan through their city's program and are able to assume the monthly mortgage payments.
"We really and truly appreciate Warrick's complete obligation to this program," said Fernando Noriega of Greco's mayoral office. "It means a lot to the community to have a single woman, head-of-household, who has been waiting her whole life, have the American Dream come true for her."
Dunn has made his own American Dream come true through football, raising himself and his family out of a difficult situation and into good homes. He only wants others who have also faced hard times to have the same opportunities.
"I chose this because it's something that I've been through, that I've lived," he said. "It's something that no one can ever take away from me. I can't describe what it was like for me to go through this. I will never, ever forget it.
"Each mother's situation is different. The expressions and how they react and what goes on, you can't imagine seeing somebody like that. Seeing somebody own their house and realize the American Dream, that vision is going to stick with you for the rest of your life. I'm going to remember all 28 mothers that I've helped."
And, of course, those mothers will forever remember Dunn. It's also a good bet that Kenneth Mitchell will never forget the look on his mother's face that day.