When wounded U.S. Army Sgt. Brian Wood returned to Illinois from two tours of duty in Afghanistan, he was met by a thrilling surprise. Habitat for Humanity was going to help his family build a new house.
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Things quickly took an unpleasant turn when neighbors, who feared that the home would not fit in with other houses in the subdivision, protested. That ended up being a good thing. The publicity inspired a flood of generosity from folks in the small village of Morton, who are now donating everything from electrician services to a roof.
“Bad has turned to good,” Lea Anne Schmidgall, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Peoria, told Yahoo Shine on Friday. “The people who started the petition did us a favor in a roundabout way, because it raised awareness, as well as funds for the project.”
Wood, who spent a total of 28 months away from his wife and three young children — ages 8, 2, and 2 months — earned two Bronze Stars and lost his hearing in one ear while serving in Afghanistan, due to a series of explosions.
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“I was having a real, real hard time adjusting to life back here,” he told Yahoo Shine on Friday, adding that he had some “head problems” as well as physical ones. And living with relatives in a two-bedroom apartment in Peoria while trying to get his feet on the ground — which has meant earning $10 an hour working in a warehouse while his wife Julie stays home with the kids — was only adding to the family’s struggle.
Then a counselor at a local Veterans Affairs office directed Wood to apply for help at the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for qualified people who can pay for a share of the place. The young vet was thrilled to learn that his family qualified, and the organization found and secured a suitable empty lot in Morton.
Adding to the family’s good fortune was support from U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Peoria), who quickly threw his weight behind a fund-raising effort to help the Woods come up with the $80,000 they needed for a 20-year mortgage.
“The Wood family has sacrificed immensely over the last decade in service to our country,” Schock announced in a press release in July. “This Habitat home is a small token from myself and a very grateful community for what the Wood family has done for all of us.”
As Wood recalled on Friday, “It sounded too good to be true.”
And it was — albeit briefly, thanks to the petition, which has remained shrouded in mystery. According to the Journal Star, a local newspaper, it was being circulated in the Morton subdivision by an elderly resident, who was concerned to learn that the house would be built of wood rather than brick, like the rest of the houses there.
“I think they feared low-income housing and maybe had seen other houses we’ve built in the area, which are vinyl but which fit in with their surrounding neighborhoods,” Schmidgall said. “I just think that people jumped the gun and didn’t take the time to find out what they were talking about. It always starts with one person.”
Wood said he first heard about the petition, which had 10 signatures, through a friend at church, who had read about it through a local letter to the editor. “We were just, like, shocked and pretty hurt,” he recalled. “We thought maybe they might not have understood the situation, and that they didn’t know our family.” But he added that the negativity seems to be behind them now, as the mayor of Morton, Ronald Rainson, has said that he is behind the Woods — as have a slew of commenters flocking to a new Facebook page, “Morton supports Habitat For Humanity Veterans and the Wood Family.”
And that, in turn, has led to the onslaught of donations, which have also included windows, bricks (yes, bricks!), and excavation of the building site. The family has already raised $40,000 toward its $80,000 goal. They hope to start building in the spring. (To donate, please contact Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Peoria Area.)
“It means so much to us, and we want to put a positive spin on this,” Wood said. “I’ve seen my fair share of war, and I don’t want another with my neighbors.”