WALTERS — Drew and Melissa Wiley might be eating pizza instead of turkey and stuffing this Thanksgiving, but they don’t mind one bit.
The couple, along with their three daughters — Abbie, 16, Amalie, 9 and Alice, 8 — will spend next Thursday moving into their new home rather than cooking dinner, and they are more than ready.
On Wednesday morning, representatives of the nonprofit Operation Homefront and JPMorgan Chase & Co. presented Drew, an U.S. Army veteran, and his family with the keys to their newly renovated, mortgage-free home off Thurman Drive in Walters.
The Wiley family are participants in the Homes on the Homefront program, which provides veterans and their families the opportunity to move into an Operation Homefront home and work directly with housing caseworkers and financial counselors to learn and plan for home ownership.
“I’m so excited to see it,” said Melissa, bracing herself against the cool wind that blew outside the light brick house. “I know it’s going to be a good place for our family.”
After being presented with their keys, the Wileys toured their new home, opening cabinet doors and exploring the house’s three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
“Honestly we were just blown away,” Drew said of seeing his family’s new home for the first time. “We weren’t expecting the home to be this nice, when you receive a mortgage for a home like this, you’re kind of curious to see what kind of home you’re getting, but it’s unbelievable.”
The morning brought up some good memories for Robert Thomas, chief operating officer of Operation Homefront.
“I bought my first house in Altus, it must have been in 1991,” Thomas said, reminiscing. “I was a young guy and it looked just like this house.”
Thomas retired as a brigadier general after 31 years in the Air Force, and said he understands the challenges many veterans and their families face. He said it’s especially satisfying when he sees a family with young children move into a home.
“We’re going to give the keys to mom and dad, but the real winners are the kids,” he said, “because they get to grow up in a nice home, in a safe neighborhood, with good schools.”
Thomas said Homes on the Homefront is a needs-based program that looks for families with local connections to move into the homes they renovate.
“We have found over the years, that if you’re from that area, you tend to be more successful,” Thomas said. Drew is from the Hinton area, and his family has been living in Weatherford while waiting for their new home to be ready.
Homes on the Homefront also screens the surrounding area to make sure the neighborhoods have “great schools, low crime rates and economic opportunity,” Thomas said. It’s a bonus if there is a Veterans Affairs facility nearby, as well as colleges and job opportunities.
Drew was able to transfer his job as a probation parole officer to a location in nearby Duncan. Next week, he will graduate with a master’s degree in parks and recreation management from Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Melissa is also working towards her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and hopes to one day complete her masters’s in computer engineering. In the meantime, she said her focus is on helping her daughters succeed in school, particularly Abbie, who has a neurological disorder and takes online classes.
“Financially, this house is a huge relief,” said Melissa, who has walked with her husband through his many years of service to his country.
Drew first committed to serving in the Oklahoma Army National Guard in 2001. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, over the next decade, he deployed with the U.S. Army to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. He also deployed to New Orleans to provide aid after Hurricane Katrina left catastrophic damage in its wake.
In 2008, Drew was medically evacuated from Iraq, and in 2011, he was medically discharged from the Army. Since then, he’s made countless trips to the hospital, still suffering from injuries and illness sustained while he was deployed.
“That’s one reason we applied for the home,” Drew said, “because I had a scare earlier this year, where I was down for about five weeks and I was in the hospital for a good chunk of it.”
Fearing there may come a day his illness could keep him from working permanently, Drew applied through Operation Homefront to receive the home in Walters through the Homes on the Homefront program.
Now that the time has come to move in to his family’s new home, there’s really just one thing Drew is looking forward to: “Just getting in here and getting settled in and getting comfortable and living life,” he said.