Fifteen-month-old Abby Jennings toddled happily in the upstairs bedroom Thursday afternoon as her parents stood by and allowed their new reality as homeowners to sink in.
"I'm still not believing it," husband Adam said out of the window to a group of Chase Bank employees standing below who came to show their support for the family as they took the keys to their new home.
"Pinch me," his wife Kristyna echoed. This is the couple's first-ever home to own, she said.
The Jennings' new home is one of 100 homes owned by Chase Bank that has been donated to Operation Homefront, said Andrea Kephart, a caseworker with the national organization that assists military families. About 85 families have already been placed, she said.
Brent Bruinsma, a Chase lending manager based in Tacoma, said locally, the bank gave away a home in Puyallup about three months ago. Like that home, the Jennings' home has been completely refurbished with new floors, new carpeting and new appliances. "It's move-in ready," he said.
Both Adam and Kristyna's families are rooted in the Puget Sound area but they have spent the last five years living in Oceanside, Calif. while Adam, a sargeant with the U.S. Marine Corps, remains stationed at Camp Pendleton, she said.
Adam Jennings, 27, was serving in Afghanistan in May 2010 when his right arm was crushed as he was working on a vehicle, he said. The initial injury became infected which then led to nerve damage. Adam now wears a compression sleeve on his right arm. "It's hypersensitive now," he explains and affects his ability to do every day tasks. "The swelling and circulation are out of control."
Back in California, the family wanted to return home to Washington state and approached Operation Homefront to apply for its mortgage-free housing program.
Andrea Kephart, the caseworker who works with the Jennings family, said the application process can be started online at www.OperationHomefront.net. Through a committee decision, families are lined up with homes based on the best fit.
Though Adam did sustain an injury, the program is not limited to military personnel who had been injured or seen combat - it's open to all veterans. The only reason for turning someone away is if they have a felony record or if they already owned a home, she said.
The Jennings were chosen for this Bonney Lake home because their family is here and "this is home to them," she said.
"It is nice to be back," Adam said, "and it'll be nice for Abby to have family nearby."
'Mortgage-free' doesn't mean the Jennings won't be responsible for monthly payments, Kephart said. The program asks families to pay a nominal monthly 'rent' to Operation Homefront for two years, which covers expenses like a homeowners association fee. Without complications, after two years is up, the organization will deed the home over to the family.
"The rent helps to create sustainability for them to learn to be homeowners," she said. Coming from a background of military housing, if something breaks, you call maintenance. As a homeowner, you have to fix it yourself, she said, so there is a learning curve.
Meanwhile, Kephart said she'll visit the Jennings quarterly to offer financial assistance and ensure they are making use of all the local resources available to them as new homeowners.
Adam has a few more weeks of service before he is officially discharged on Nov. 29 this year, he said. He loves the Marines but is looking forward to going back to school to study business at Pierce College.
The family will initially be able to work with Operation Homefront thanks to disability that Adam will be receiving as well as a GI bill stipend that helps covers his education and cost of living, Kephart said.
Before all of that, they'll need to head back to California to drive their belongings back up to Washington, Adam said. And even after the family is settled, he'll need to spend his time back at Camp Pendleton until his discharge.
Shaking off his disbelief that the house was his, Adam wasted no time with perhaps his first official action as a new homeowner: he proudly raised his USMC flag up the flagpole outside his home, delighting in having his brother-in-law, 'an Army guy,' helping him.