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Getting homes for the holidays

Three Belmont Heights homes are presented to three single mothers and their families by Bucs star Warrick Dunn.

By BABITA PERSAUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


TAMPA -- Warrick Dunn's grandmother, Willie D. Wheeler, labored in the kitchen all day Tuesday, preparing a feast for all the single moms her grandson has helped the past few years.

Four turkeys, three hams, sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese and corn bread dressing for 130.

"No, Warrick didn't help," said Mrs. Wheeler, 63.

But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back did help three more families build brighter futures.

In what has become a Christmas tradition for Dunn, three homes in Belmont Heights were presented to three single moms in the Homes for the Holidays program he created in 1997, his rookie year. So far, Dunn has helped 22 single mothers and 66 children, many of whom gathered Tuesday at Higgins Hall for his grandmother's reunion feast.

"Today isn't really about me," Dunn told reporters.

Instead, it is about Georgia Mae Johnson, who is raising her four grandchildren, ages 6 to 11, after her 27-year-old daughter died of kidney trouble and left specific instructions: "I don't want them to go to a foster home."

It also was about Chimeka Pitts and her two small children. And Patricia Patton and her two sons, her "best friends."

They are the ones doing the hard part, Dunn said. Raising their kids. Surviving.

They were the ones who made the step toward independence, working with the city and the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, a non-profit organization, to purchase a home. They are the ones who will have to keep up the monthly payments.

Dunn said all he did was step in at the last minute, giving each $5,000 toward a down payment. Publix, Badcock Furniture, Home Depot and Computer Renaissance made donations. The Buccaneers community relations department did the decorating.

Dunn bought pillows, shower curtains and mattress pads. He also chose the moms, "the toughest part," he said. "Who to help?"

"Thankful," was what Pitts, mother of two, said she felt. And apprehensive. The mothers didn't know Dunn was helping them out until last week. "Don't stop by, don't look inside," they were told. Then, on Tuesday, with cameras trailing, they toured the homes with Dunn for the first time.

They homes look like model homes inside. Sofa and love seat matched. The beige carpet was soft. Pictures of flowers hung on the wall. Scented candles were lit and vases on the oak coffee table were filled with red and white carnations.

On the large oak dining room table was a Publix apple pie.

"Wow, they even have food on the table," said Patton.

Cupboards were stocked with food, boxes of cereal, tins of soup. Oven mitts rested on the stove. In the bathroom, towels were rolled into a white basket. Shelves already stocked with Crest toothpaste and hand lotion.

Christmas touches weren't left out. A wreath hung on the front door. A Christmas tree with red bows and candy canes stood in the living room. It could be seen through the front window.

For the kids: a stocking filled with candy, a football autographed by Dunn and a Compaq desktop computer, complete with games, including monster truck, golf and, yes, football games.

When Dunn was young, his mother, a police officer, was killed making a late-night bank deposit in Baton Rouge, La., as part of an off-duty security job. To own her own home was her dream, which is why Dunn says he sustains the program.

"I don't think my mom would want it any other way."

- Babita Persaud can be reached at (813) 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com.

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