ST. PETERSBURG — Warrick Dunn has been doing this for nearly 20 years, and yet each time his favorite moment is no less special: He opens the front door and watches as a single mother and her children walk inside their new home.
On Thursday morning, it was Keyona Thompson and her six children proudly stepping into a gray house on Fourth Avenue S. Incredibly, it is the 155th house that Warrick Dunn Charities has presented in his "Homes for the Holidays" campaign, which started when he was a Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie running back in 1997.
"This is where it all started," said Dunn, 42, who returned to the Bucs to finish his NFL career in 2008 and still owns a home in Tampa. "This community accepted me as a rookie when I was still going through a lot emotionally, and it still accepts me today.
"It's always great to come back. I still live here, I come back often. This is home. It always will be home. I'm blessed that the community embraces my mission, and I'm thankful."
Dunn's charity worked with Habitat for Humanity and Publix Super Market Charities and others to help Thompson, a nurse at Baywood Nursing Center. Standing in her kitchen, she was excited to spend Thursday night sleeping in her new home, along with her five children and a niece she is raising: Joshua, 16; Josalyn , 14; Aryahna, 13; Jaimier, 11; Garyonna, 8; and Gary, 6.
"I can't put into words how much of a blessing you are to my family," Thompson said to her sponsors during a ceremony in her driveway. "I can't find a word that describes how I feel today, not just in what becoming a homeowner means to me, but for the support of the community and the love that's out there."
Thompson's home is the 406th built in Pinellas County by Habitat, and the crowd gathered in the front yard Thursday included Habitat volunteers wearing paint-splattered jeans and work boots. Publix has donated $4 million to Habitat's Florida efforts, part of a multistate campaign that will help fund 60 new homes.
Thompson was presented with a hammer, symbolic of the hard work she shared in building the home, as well as a Bible and a housewarming pot of flowers.
Dunn's charity provides $5,000 toward a down payment with each home. Dunn, himself the oldest of six children, founded the charity in memory of his mother, Betty Smothers, a Baton Rouge police officer who was shot and killed in 1993 when he was only 18 years old.
He keeps in touch with many of the families he has helped. Deshaun Watson, who quarterbacked Clemson to the national championship in Tampa in January, grew up in a home that Dunn had presented to his family in 2006 outside Atlanta, where his charity is based.
"It's another example of the need we have in this country to help people who are trying to help themselves," Dunn said. "Nothing is given. She earned it, with a lot of sweat equity put into this house. She showed a willingness to sacrifice, and I think that's important."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.