Thanks to charitable contractor, veteran in need now perfectly at home in Camden

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Army veteran and single mother Janne Dawson hugs Gary Smith,  a Mullica Hill contractor who bought and renovated an abandoned home in Camden and gave it to her through Catholic Charities. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Army veteran and single mother Janne Dawson hugs Gary Smith, a Mullica Hill contractor who bought and renovated an abandoned home in Camden and gave it to her through Catholic Charities. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

About two years ago, South Jersey contractor Gary Smith was getting fed up with the all-bark-no-bite discourse around poverty and homelessness in Camden.

“Nobody’s really doing anything,” Smith thought to himself. “Everybody’s complaining about stuff, but nobody’s really doing anything to step up.”

Smith decided to take a leap of faith: He would buy an abandoned house in Camden, fix it up, and give it away to a needy family.

After perusing several neighborhoods, Smith settled on a property in the city’s Whitman Park section. “The roof was leaking in the back half. The windows were completely broken out. The door was kicked in,” he said of the house on Thurman Street.

But the Mullica Hill resident got to work rehabbing the house. Friends and colleagues in the construction world started selling parts and labor at no profit, until they began doing it for free after seeing Smith’s dedication to the project.

On Friday, the family moving into the Thurman Street home set their eyes on it for the first time.

“Oh, my goodness. I get keys?!” exclaimed Janne Dawson, an Army veteran who’s been staying with relatives in Camden since becoming homeless after separating from her partner.

Since leaving the service in 2010, Dawson and her 7-year-old son have struggled to make ends meet.

“I’m not gonna say that it’s been an easy road,” said Dawson. “It’s been a little bit rough, trying to find my niche, trying to stay stable, have a good job.”

Upon seeing the house on Friday, those struggles seemed to melt away. “I can turn my key, and it’s my home,” Dawson said excitedly. “My son can run up and down the steps. My niece can walk in and out of the door.” (Dawson is moving into the house with her son, her sister, and her niece.)

Also on hand Friday were some of the many contractors — electricians, mechanical engineers, painters, landscapers — who helped transform the once dilapidated property.

Dawson thanked them repeatedly. “I love very hard, and this is very nice,” she said, smiling wide. “I can’t say nothing else, but I’m just excited. You see all my teeth.”

One of the contractors, Nick Piccone, said he jumped at the opportunity to pitch in when Smith asked him. “I’m always willing to help people,” said Piccone, who installed the home’s heating system. “And I’ll tell you right now, I’d do it in a second again.”

But the project was not without its snags.

At a certain point, Smith realized he knew how to rehab a house, but he lacked the know-how to find a suitable family to live there.

That’s when he teamed up with the Diocese of Camden’s Catholic Charities, a faith-based organization that provides social services to poor and otherwise struggling residents in South Jersey.

“You want to make sure that you’re giving it to someone that is truly deserving … yet at the same time assuring that that individual can afford it, can sustain it themselves,” said Mark Taylor, who runs the veteran services arm of Catholic Charities. “So, to partner with someone like Gary, we can really connect him with these individuals.”

Dawson will lease the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home at first, but she will be on track to buy in in 18 to 24 months.

Catholic Charities liked the idea so much, it and partner organization Community Asset Preservation Corporation plan to continue buying and rehabbing properties in Camden (with Smith’s help). They also want to replicate the idea in Atlantic City.

As for Dawson, she plans to concentrate on settling into her new home — and taking advantage of her favorite room.

“I like to eat. Do you like to eat? That’s my favorite part of the house. That’s the part of the house I’ll be at the most — the kitchen.”

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