THOMSON, Ga. — Former Army Spc. Michael McKinney and his family have always lived with change and instability.
That is, until Friday, when the Augusta veteran and his mother, Velma Folkes, a two-time cancer survivor, became the first people in Georgia to receive a mortgage-free home from Bank of America and the national nonprofit Operation Homefront.
“Words cannot describe how appreciative we are to have the opportunity to be in our own home and grow as a family without worrying about the stress of mortgage payments,” McKinney said after stepping foot into his new Apollo Drive home. “We finally have stability.”
The family also has much-needed space and peace of mind.
The 40-year-old house, which took about 60 days to renovate for the family, has a pool, three bedrooms, a game room and 1,900 square-feet of heated floor space.
In March, after four years in the Army, McKinney moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Augusta with his mother and brother to ease his transition into the civilian world and help him combat post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
The move was supposed to be temporary, but on Valentine’s Day, his disabled mother, who is blind in her left eye, received a kidney transplant after nearly five years on dialysis. McKinney said his brother, Devon, needed help caring for her.
“This is a huge stress reliever,” said McKinney, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and served one year during Operation Enduring Freedom.
As a food-service specialist, McKinney primarily worked with about 25 soldiers from Fort Knox in Kentucky to prepare more than 3,000 meals daily.
“I’m not ready for Chef Bobby Flay yet, but I’m getting there,” he said.
He said he plans to use a mortgage-free life to save money for medical treatment, care for his mother, and work toward culinary arts and business management degrees from Augusta Technical College.
McKinney and Folkes’ new house is one of more than 1,000 Bank of America has donated to first responders and military veterans in the past two years, a commitment its Augusta market pesident, Ora Parish Jr., said the company plans to continue with Operation Homefront. The project placed 188 families in homes and helped veterans avoid $41 million in mortgage costs last year.
“Spc. McKinney, we’re here to welcome you home and proud to have a hand in bringing a military veteran to this neighborhood. These keys open a world of possibility for you and your family,” said Parish, who presented a plaque to McKinney for his service and keys to the house. “This neighborhood and community are better for you and your family’s presence.”
Folkes said she had trouble putting words to the occasion.
She was born with three kidneys, two of which were removed when she was diagnosed with cancer in her left one at age 4. In 2010, her remaining kidney became cancerous. Despite being on disability, half her income went to pay rent.
“I have always been close to my son,” said Folkes, who moved to Augusta from Pittsburgh in 1978. “He helps me and I help him.”
The family says it actively prays and thanks God for the donated home. The mother and son began moving in Friday and plan to start exploring the city and using the pool right away.
They’ve already chosen rooms, but Folkes said interior design is all up to her son.
“I can coordinate colors,” she said. “But this is his space and I told him he can do whatever he wants.”