Plastic dishes neatly in the kitchen counter’s drying rack. Paw-shaped mud stains on the concrete driveway. Disney Channel from the corner television. For many people, this is merely the humdrum of everyday life, but for Tiffany Willie these things are special.
Willie, 29, spent most of her adult life bouncing between living arrangements before landing at Buckner Family Place in Conroe in 2011 and transferring to Buckner Family Place in Lufkin in 2012. The program provides housing, child care and counseling for single parents as they pursue higher education to better support their families.
“Buckner really does provide hope for people,” Willie said. “Because of Buckner I was able to stay in school and still make it. We have a future now, and I wouldn’t have one without Buckner.”
When Willie first arrived at Family Place, she wanted to be able to provide for herself and her daughter, 9-year-old Matty, more than anything.
“She’s a very determined, strong willed lady,” said Holly Valentine, program coordinator for Buckner Family Place in Lufkin. “She’s full speed ahead in everything she does. She’s a confident woman, a loving mom, and nothing will really hold her back.”
Willie’s faith and life experience naturally propelled her into a leadership role at Family Place, where she was already few years older than many of the women in the community.
“The ladies really gravitated to her,” Valentine said. “They were able to look up to her and she was always willing to do something for them.”
Willie wanted a better life for herself and her daughter.
“I was always living with somebody and I didn’t want that my whole life,” Willie said. “I was determined to never have to rely on anyone else ever again,” Willie said.
On March 3, Willie’s hopes came true. She signed the mortgage for her first house and moved in 10 weeks later. For the first time in her life, Willie has a place of her own.
“If you had asked me a year ago if I would be buying a house I probably would have thought you were crazy,” Willie said. “I didn’t even know I could qualify for a loan, but it all came through.”
Willie always has worked hard. Soon after graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work last May, she secured a job working at a mental health facility, earned her social work license and, now, has bought her first house.
“My parents raised us to be independent and hardworking,” Willie said. “That’s just how we are. Now I get to save up not so we can move again but so we can plan for other things.”
At the time, Willie didn’t think purchasing a house was something she could consider. She didn’t like her rent house and wanted to move, but assumed she wasn’t ready to purchase her own house yet.
One night, however, Willie went to her friend’s house to study for the social work licensing exam. She and Kelsey Gilliam had grown close through school, and it was Willie’s friendship that led the Gilliams to become foster parents through Buckner.
When Willie arrived for the study session, she saw a for-sale sign sitting in the yard of the cozy one-story, 3-bedroom abode outside the city limits of Lufkin. Willie joked with Gilliam that if she could buy a house she’d buy hers.
After a series of meetings at the bank, the possibility of purchasing the house seemed more and more plausible. One hectic week later, she was signing the mortgage, and the Gilliam foster home rules still hang from Willie’s hallway walls today.
“I didn’t talk to anyone,” Willie said. “I didn’t ask their opinions. That was part of the thrill. I just said, ‘I like it. This is what I want.’”
Willie almost lived a very different life. She was engaged to a boy she met in high school, but they broke up before the wedding. Shortly thereafter, Willie learned she was pregnant.
“Our relationship wasn’t violent yet, but it was close to it,” Willie said. “God gave me Matty as my guardian angel, as a wakeup call. I didn’t want her to have to grow up like that.”
Healing from the split was a long and painful process. Willie lost most of her friends through the relationship because they didn’t approve of her boyfriend. She moved back in with her parents and had to learn how to care for a child on her own. Though Matty now has a healthy relationship with her father and the two enjoy spending time together, building a foundation took time.
Being able to provide for her daughter motivated Willie to go to school and earn a degree. In 2010, she started taking general classes at Lone Star College in Conroe. When she ran out of classes to take there, she transitioned to the Family Place program in Lufkin where she could complete her social work degree at Stephen F. Austin.
“My goal has been just to show Matty that you can do it on your own,” Willie said. “I want her to be successful in anything she does, to never give up.”
Purchasing the house is an experience Willie shares closely with her daughter. Together, the two enjoy cooking, crafting and being outside.
“We do everything together,” Willie said. “The nice thing about it just being us is we can do whatever we want whenever we want.”
Already, Matty feels at ease in her new house. Her blonde hair bounces up and down as she flies from room to room, showing off her personal reading nook and the paint she picked out for her room. The yard, too, leaves plenty of space to wrestle with the two neighborhood dogs, Booger and Sam, and race across the street to play with her friend, Briar.
Willie never expected to stay in Lufkin. When she first arrived to Family Place in Lufkin, she couldn’t wait to leave. The small-town atmosphere was too tiny, too country and too lonely.
“I was so against coming to Lufkin,” Willie said. “I was not going to come, I was not having it, but still I came. If God wants you somewhere, he will put you there. Now we love it here.”
Slowly, Lufkin became home. Willie and Matty joined Carpenter’s Way Baptist Church, and Matty began making friends at her school, Crimson Christian Academy.
“Lufkin grew on us,” Willie said. “God had his hand in everything. You just have to trust him.”
Willie knows it’s faith that has carried her through her journey. The journey itself has made her faith stronger, she said, and she hopes Matty sees the redemption God brought to their lives.
“I really want her to learn to be strong in her faith because if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be here,” Willie said. “God never leaves you. Lord knows that in my journey I have turned away from him more times than I am proud of, but when I came back to him he got me where I needed to be.”
Story by Elizabeth Arnold. Photo by Aimee Freston.
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