Hundreds of volunteers waved American flags and cheered as two families, preceded by a police escort, were driven through a new, suburban neighborhood Friday morning.
They were dropped off next to a large H-E-B semi truck that obscured the view of the two brand-new houses behind it. When the truck pulled away, members of the Robinson and Range families were brought to tears. These new neighbors, both disabled veterans, will be moving into their new, fully-furnished and fully-stocked homes without having to worry about a mortgage thanks to a partnership between H-E-B, Operation Finally Home, and PulteGroup.
It was an emotional moment for the Robinson and Range families, who embraced and looked upon the houses they and their children will now call home. The grocery store chain broke the news to the families that they were selected to receive the homes during an H-E-B Tournament of Champions dinner presentation Thursday night. Friday morning’s big reveal and tour of the 2,458-sq.-ft. homes made it real.
Tara Range, 7, christened her bedroom by jumping on the bed – after jumping on the trampoline in her new backyard – while the four Robinson children crawled on a large, wooden playset next door.
“For years now, our children are going to be able to come back here – home. They don’t have to worry about us moving here or there,” said 28-year-old Army Specialist Haywood Range, whose arm was amputated in 2006 after a training exercise went terribly wrong while he was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. “They’re going to be able to come back and see Mommy and Daddy right here. It’s just an amazing feeling right now.”
Specialist Range was joined by his wife, Whitney, and three children; Tara, Talia, 6, and Raiden – the 16-month-old baby that was captivated by all the attention (and microphones) of reporters.
“It was definitely a rough time, it was like – what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” Haywood said, recalling his injury. “They finally stationed me there at BAMC (Brooke Army Medical Center) where I ran into other amputees, burn victims, (and other veterans with) illnesses and injuries and those guys really changed my mindset. … They got me into swimming and other adaptive sports (like) track and field.”
The Range family will be moving their family and possessions from Florida to San Antonio over the next month.
“I must be dreaming,” he said, recalling the moment they found out they had been selected by Operation Finally Home to receive one of the homes.
The New Braunfels-based nonprofit selects veterans based on need, preparedness for homeownership, and severity of injuries. This is the third year and fifth and sixth time that H-E-B has partnered with Operation Finally Home to give wounded veterans a fresh start with the gift of housing.
“From the interior furnishings to the design and construction of each home, we are honored … to help these families make the transition back into civilian life a little easier and a lot less stressful,” said Laurin Darnell, president of PulteGroup San Antonio Division, who helped build the homes in the Champions Park subdivision, far west beyond Loop 1604.
About 400 volunteers from H-E-B, it’s vendors, suppliers, and partners put the finishing touches on the homes throughout the day Thursday.
“I’m just so thankful for all the people who have been the hands and feet of Jesus and given us something that we’re going to live and grow and prosper in,” Whitney said, her voice cracking.
Next door, Army Sergeant Randy K. Robinson’s wife Crystal were impressed by the completeness of the gift, including the refrigerators, cupboards, and bathrooms stocked with essentials. She was quick to offer refreshments and food to media and volunteers, already a hostess.
Their children Shane, 6, Aiden, 5, Kaitlyn, 3, and Ethan, 3, showed off their new home to the volunteers that 24 hours ago were landscaping, painting, assembling fixtures, building playground equipment, and filling pantries.
“It’s amazing,” Crystal said in tandem with her husband, thanking all the volunteers and community for the support.
Randy has struggled with memory loss and nerve/muscle damage in his leg from injuries sustained in Afghanistan in 2006. There was a time he could only remember 15 minutes at a time, then his brain would reset. He’s been in physical therapy for about eight years and has recovered most of his memory, he said.
“I was traveling 3,000 miles a month just going to doctor’s appointments and taking the kids to school,” Randy said of his previous experience living in Frankston, a small town 30 minutes away from Tyler, Texas. He and his family will be moving into their new place as soon as they can. “Being here in San Antonio, there is so many hospitals and VAs and everything – I only have to go a few minutes down the road.”
Once they settle in, Randy plans on attending college. He’s not sure what for yet, but he and a friend have started an online home base for veterans on Facebook called Veterans of Kunar Province, Afghanistan. They’re working on obtaining a business license to start organizing in-person meet ups, fundraising for different organizations, and ultimately veteran retreats. The page has become an official suicide hotline for veterans.
“It’s easier for a veteran to talk to someone who’s been there and understands it than it is to find a therapist through the VA which takes months,” Crystal said. “We give out our personal number to anyone on that page (as needed).”
“I talk to them 24/7 – 1 a.m. and you need someone’s ear to chew on, I’ll be there,” Randy said. “Even if it’s just emails back and forth or text messages.”
They also help direct them to VA benefits and services – or at least to someone that can help.
Friday, it was the Robinson and Range family’s turn to get help and it goes beyond a “free” house. There are still many costs associated with owning a home; property taxes, utilities, maintenance, and housing association fees. Friday’s agreement, however, includes several fee waivers and highlights Texas’ innovative tax discount for veterans.
“It’s good to be a veteran in Texas,” Darnell said as Randy signed the paperwork for his family’s new home.
In Texas, disabled veterans that considered more than 10% impaired, surviving spouses, and the spouses and minor children of someone who dies on active duty are eligible for property tax exemptions. If a veteran is 90% disabled, for instance, by law they can only pay 10% of property taxes. Similar state laws are spreading throughout the country.
Thursday’s citywide day of volunteering and Friday’s ceremonies are all part of the annual H-E-B Tournament of Champions. Now in its 30th year, the golf and tennis tournaments and charitable event series has raised more than $80 million for more than 600 Texas nonprofits. This year the tournament alone has already raised more than the expected $8 million.
H-E-B employees, called partners, from all sectors are involved – from cashiers to management to the executive level.
“We’re all very proud to be a part of it. It’s truly an honor to have the opportunity to give back to these veterans who have given so much on behalf of all of us and our county,” said Winell Herron, H-E-B Group vice president of Public Affairs and Diversity.
“Family and volunteerism is a big, big part of our culture,” Herron added. “Part of it is because we’re a family-owned company and we’ve been around for 110 years. …We want to operate great stores, but we also want to feel really good about how we’re giving back to the community.”