Over the last 19 years, the former NFL running back has helped more than 150 parents.
For weeks, Rickita Burney made lists of things she needed to buy for her new home, the very first she’s owned.
Cleaning supplies, of course. A lawn mower and rakes to keep the yard neat. Furniture, particularly for her bedroom as well as her son and daughter’s rooms. Dishes and pans and all the other kitchen staples. And then there were those things you never think about, like tools and duct tape and ice cube trays for the refrigerator.
But her family and friends kept telling her to wait. Move in and then see what you need.
“I had saved my money,” Burney said. “I wasn’t thinking there was going to be anything here.”
Imagine, then, Burney’s surprise when she and her kids walked into their new home last month and found it fully furnished through Warrick Dunn’s Homes for the Holidays program, which honors the former NFL star’s late mother by giving a head start to economically disadvantaged single parents who are first-time home owners.
Burney’s mouth dropped open and her son, Khali, 12, buried his face in his hands when they saw their house had already been made into a home. Every room furnished and decorated, the pieces selected to match the preferences they’d given in a questionnaire they didn’t quite understand at the time. Pots, pans and dinnerware. Food in the cupboards and the refrigerator. Toiletries and cleaning supplies. A new computer.
“Oh my gosh,” Burney said, her eyes wide as she looked around, “we got everything.”
Even books and board games near a decked-out Christmas tree.
“There’s a phrase there’s a devil in the details but Oprah changes it and says the love is in the details. That was it,” said Renee Tulloch, who received her house in 2002.
“At that time, I was like, ‘OK, I have my apartment furniture so I’m going to stick with that and just save up over time and get more furniture when I can.’ I was going to set up milk crates and a board and cover it for tables,” Tulloch said. “Through the foundation, all of that stuff was taken care of for me.
“It amazes me, even to think about it now, 14 years later, how much detail went into it.”
On Tuesday, Dunn will present the 153rd home through Homes for the Holidays, which the former Tampa Bay and Atlanta running back describes as “a hand up, not a handout.”
While Dunn donates a check for a portion of the down payment on the houses, that might be the least significant part of the program, now in its 19th year and in 15 cities across the country.
Dunn and his foundation partner with community organizations – often Habitat for Humanity – to identify single parents who are already working toward home ownership. In addition to sweat equity in building or rehabbing their homes, there is a required class in financial literacy as well as one on being a new homeowner, which covers everything from dealing with homeowners’ associations to how to repair drywall.
Then he taps into a long list of sponsors to furnish and stock the homes.
“It creates a recipe of longevity,” Dunn told USA TODAY Sports. “When you say someone has to come in and help build the walls and learn how to repair doorknobs or things in the bathroom, to me, people tend to want to take care of their situation. I’ve gone back to homes where these families worked and the lawn is well-manicured, the house looks the same. People take pride in that.
“That’s important because if you just give someone something, they’re not going to take care of it,” Dunn added. “If you work for it, you’re going to maintain it and ensure that it’s around for a long time.”
It is a deeply personal cause for Dunn, one born from his own family’s tragedy.
Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, always dreamed of owning her own home. One of her favorite things to do was house hunt, piling her kids in the car to take a look whenever a new home was being built. And during the holidays? Oh, she loved driving through different neighborhoods and seeing the houses all lit up and decorated.
“Someday,” Smothers would tell her family as they returned to whatever apartment or house they were renting at the time.
But as a single mother of six, owning her own home was a dream that remained stubbornly out of Smothers’ reach. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying, as Smothers worked as a police officer in Baton Rouge, La., regularly taking on extra shifts or off-duty security jobs.
Smothers was working one of those extra jobs Jan. 7, 1993, when she was shot and killed during a robbery. Dunn, the oldest of her six kids, was a senior in high school.
“It was just a struggle for her to save up,” Dunn said. “She knew how to stretch a dollar. She made sacrifices. But she had six kids that were all active in sports. There was no way she could pay for all of that stuff without giving up her dream of a home.
“I knew how important it was,” he added, “but I knew that it was impossible because we just couldn’t afford it.”
A place to call your own can be transformative for single-parent families, whether it’s giving them a sense of stability or helping further their pursuit of upward mobility.
“Home ownership,” Dunn said, “is the quickest way to grow wealth in this country.”
Take Tulloch’s example.
In nursing school when she got pregnant with her son Jordan, now 18, she put those studies on hold and became a medical assistant. Jordan was 4 when she received her house through Homes for the Holidays, and the money she was able to save allowed her to return to school and get her nursing license.
Dunn, who is also a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and and a financial partner will typically provide a down payment of roughly 10%. The new owner is then responsible for paying off the house with the benefit of a interest-free mortgage, making monthly payments lower than what rent would be.
Six years after she moved into that first home, Tulloch sold it and used the profits to start a fund for Jordan and a retirement account for herself. She also went back and got her bachelor’s degree in health administration, which earned her a promotion to her current job.
Tulloch now trains doctors and nurses to document electronic medical records for a hospital chain in Orlando. Jordan is a senior in high school, trying to decide where he wants to go to college next year.
“Had Warrick and the foundation not intervened?” Tulloch said. “I don’t know if I would be as far ahead. You always fight the good fight as a single parent to do what you can. But sometimes your limits are your limits.
“That hand up gave me such a catapult.”
Success stories like Tulloch’s abound among the Homes for the Holidays recipients. Since the program started in 1997 — when Dunn was just an NFL rookie — only one family has lost its house. All of the other families are either still in their homes or have sold them.
While that has provided stability for their families, it’s helped do the same for their communities. Burney’s house replaces one that had been burned out and abandoned, and will immediately raise property values in the neighborhood.
“(Burney) is a young mother who works very hard, works for one of our local municipalities. She’s going to school to get her bachelor’s degree,” said Kem Kimbrough, chief executive officer of Southern Crescent Habitat for Humanity in suburban Atlanta.
“She is the kind of person that we want in this community,” Kimbrough said. “She makes this community better.”
The same is true of Dunn. He was an upstanding member of the NFL for 12 years, retiring following the 2008 season. But it’s the work he’s done off the field that’s come to define him, even if he doesn’t fully appreciate the impact he’s had on so many lives.
He knows he’s making a difference. He knows there are 153 parents — and counting — who have realized the dream that eluded his mother, along with hundreds more children who won’t grow up in a state of upheaval like he and his siblings did because of repeated moves.
But his simple generosity, that hand up instead of a hand out, has created ripples that will spread far and wide. Through the stability and improved financial circumstances the homes bring, Dunn is changing the course of lives for generations to come.
Asked what his mother would think, Dunn said, “That’s a tough one,” noting how young he was when she died.
“I just hope,” he said, “she would be proud.”