Melanie Reyes tells her story through laughter and tears, her story of being the homeless single mother of three young boys to becoming a homeowner who can now provide her family with new opportunities.
“Miracles happen,” she said in her Anaheim condominium. “Hope is real. This is a miracle. That’s my soul cry.”
NeighborWorks Orange County, which taught her the ins and outs of homeownership and created for her an affordable loan package, was the key to making her family’s miracle happen, she said.
“We had our moments of anxiety and sadness, but we believed there was a better end to our story,” Melanie said. “NeighborWorks is the catalyst. They helped us. “
Melanie, 44, is a licensed marriage and family therapist holding down three jobs. Make that four when you add the title “Mom.”
She is a mental health clinician and crisis counselor at a residential treatment center for youth in Riverside County, where she has worked in various capacities for the past year, starting as an intern and moving into a staff position in which she works with severely traumatized foster youth. She has served clients at Thomas House Family Shelter, a domestic violence shelter in Garden Grove, for nearly three years on an as-needed basis. And she has her own nascent counseling practice.
Melanie is a native of the Philippines whose father, a career Navy man, brought her to the U.S. as a toddler. A graduate of Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, she had been a teacher, a Zumba instructor and had run a successful business from her home selling jewelry. She obtained a certificate in interior design. Her life overturned when she went through a divorce in 2012 after about 18 years of marriage. She was left, she says, with debt and a car. The same year, after four years of effort, she completed the master’s program in clinical psychology and marriage and family therapy at Azusa Pacific University.
Melanie and her ex-husband worked out joint custody of her three sons, an arrangement in which they live with her with her part of the week and every other weekend. She and her former husband had lived in a Garden Grove home they had purchased, but for her, divorce brought homelessness.
Providing for her sons Joshua, 16, Jonathan , 14, and Ethan, 10, meant driving to her father’s home in San Diego and staying some nights there. Or staying with relatives in Carson or Azusa. Or getting a hotel room. As she struggled to acquire 3,000 hours of clinical training with little or no pay so that she could obtain her therapy license, there were times she would drop the boys off with their father in Garden Grove, and then sleep in her car. She made certain they always had a roof over their heads.
Often, she says, she would need to begin driving the boys to Orange County at 4 a.m. so that they could attend school in Garden Grove. Breakfast was a meal at Denny’s, McDonald’s or Walmart.
“I’m an educated woman and no one would think you’d have to live like that,” she said.
About two years after her divorce, she was able to rent a studio apartment, and then a one-bedroom place in Anaheim. She worked odd jobs in gyms and such to earn enough money to pay bills.
And finally, after eight years of effort, in 2016 she received her California marriage and family therapy license.
“The divorce was brutal,” Melanie said. “It was a difficult journey. But I kept going. I needed that license to get my kids in a nice, stable environment.”
With her career now begun, she set her sights on homeownership.
“I paid almost as much for rent as I pay now,” she said. “I wanted a home not only for me but for my kids. I wanted them to have something as a legacy, a legacy that they could have a home here.”
After she began working with a Realtor and meeting lenders, Melanie learned about NeighborWorks.
At the time, Melanie was working through another non-profit as well as Rommel Salazar, a Huntington Beach-based home mortgage consultant for Wells Fargo who specializes in helping first-time homebuyers. When it became clear that the other agency couldn’t help her, he recommended that she try NeighborWorks, which was also able to offer a financial package better suited to her needs. “My job is to make it happen for the client,” he said.
He sees Melanie has having come full circle, earning a master’s degree and putting herself in a position of being to help others.
“In my many years in this business,” Salazar said, “I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of becoming a homeowner than she is.”
In August 2016 she took an eight-hour homeownership class, where she learned about money management, insurance and the responsibilities that come with owning a home.
“It was a tough journey to get to homeownership,” Melanie said. “ I saved and saved and saved and saved. “
Enough to make her own $7,000 deposit.
With her Realtor, Annalissa de Chavez Castillo, she looked at about seven or eight homes, but discovered that single-family houses in her price range often were located in neighborhoods that she considered unsafe.
“I said, ‘God, can You please give us a home?’ And Ethan prayed, ‘Can You give us free stuff?’”
The 1,001-square-foot condominium that she purchased in Anaheim answered the family’s prayers.
“It was furnished,” Melanie said of the condo, built in 1974. “The way it was presented was beautiful. It was by Disneyland. It was close to their dad. And it was cozy for me. It’s somewhat gated. I wanted a detached home but I liked that there are people around me.”
The two-story condo came with bunk beds in one upstairs room that the two younger boys share. A sofa bed on the first floor provided what Melanie calls “a bachelor pad” for Joshua. Upstairs were two bathrooms, while downstairs, near the entryway , was a half bath with toilet and sink.
She was sold on it.
“I wanted the boys close to their schools and close to their dad so we could share custody in an effective manner,” Melanie said.
Collaborating with partners such as Luther Burbank Savings, the “Friendly Experts” at NeighborWorks Orange County put together a finance package that included forgivable down payment assistance for Melanie, considered low-income by federal standards that take into account family size and Orange County income levels. Escrow closed Oct. 25, 2016 on the $372,000 condo, and Melanie moved in the following weekend.
“When we got the keys, I wept,” Melanie said. “Finally my dream came true. We have a home…And the miracle part of it is I prayed for a bunk bed. I prayed for a sofa bed. And a TV. And all the appliances. Everything was included.”
The family keeps the residence immaculately tidy.
“I believe that when someone comes into our home and is our guest, they need to see us at our best. And so I have high expectations that are fair for my children and I,” Melanie said.
She’s also grateful that she has a home to clean.
“Everything that people complain about, like the laundry or dishes, I’m thankful I can wash my dishes,” she said. “People say, ‘I hate cleaning the toilet.’ I say, ‘Thank God, I can clean this toilet, it’s my toilet. I think you see things differently.”
She began to see herself in a new light.
“I can go home to my home,” she said. “I’m not sharing. I’m not renting. There’s something about your identity when you’re a homeowner, when you can say, this is my home. These are my things, the children’s things. It’s my identity, absolutely.”
Ethan and Jonathan both say they like having a room to themselves, and plenty of bathroom space.
“It’s not cramped anymore,” Jonathan said.
“I have a chance to be me, to discover my identity,” said Joshua, a high school performer who, following college, aspires to a career on Broadway. Having a home, he said, provides him a place to rehearse, to invite friends and even to sit and discuss college plans with his mother. He and his brothers, all musicians, have a place to practice.
“I feel safe” he said. “I feel stability and there is hope. Seeing it from my mom’s perspective, I noticed that if you work hard, you will achieve what you want to achieve. That’s a life lesson that will take me through the rest of my life.”
Melanie said a sense of gratitude for her new home comes to her each day – thankfulness to her Christian faith, to her family, and to NeighborWorks. She sees her journey as spiritual, too.
“Especially if you were down in the dumps, and you just saw death and darkness and despair,” Melanie said. “Now you see hope and light. It’s still tough, but you see hope and light and joy, joy, joy.
“There’s a scripture that says, ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.’ …This is my morning time. This is my joy time. This is my morning prayer, it’s beautiful. Every day, I kneel in the heart of my home, right there, and I say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s my beautiful home.”