If you asked Melissa or Val Tew last month where they were going to spend Christmas, their answer would’ve been “We don’t know.”
“We were lost,” Val said. “We went from living in a home to nothing. We didn’t know where to turn.”
Walton County natives, Melissa, Val and their three kids, Zackary, 17, Valiant, 8, and Alexus, 6, were originally living with a family member but they had to move out after a domestic incident.
“I just didn’t feel safe there,” Melissa said.
After the family spent the night in their mini van, a deputy at Walton County Sheriff’s Office gave the family money to stay in a hotel room out of his pocket. With the help of friends in the community, the family stayed there for two weeks trying to plan their next step.
It hasn’t been an easy road for the family. Valiant was born with a malformed rectum and has been in and out of the hospital — he goes in for major surgery at Shands Children Hospital in Gainesville next month. Melissa is on disability, diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety, as well as bipolar disorder. She's currently working toward her bachelor's degree in medical administration online and holds a 3.0 GPA — her husband is quick to note that she's the first person in her entire family to go to college.
Val works part-time dedicating most of his time to taking care of his family.
Homelessness, on top of their daily struggles, was not something the family was prepared to handle.
“We don’t hide anything from our kids; honesty is the best policy,” Val said. “But that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say — ‘You’re gonna have to sleep in a van tonight.’ ”
Val and Melissa found help through The Matrix Community Outreach Center, which in turn led the family to Opportunity, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping the homeless in Okaloosa and Walton County. There, they entered the Independent Living Program and within no time, they moved in to a house of their own.
"The Tews are the first family in Walton County to benefit from the Independent Living Program," explained the family's case manager, Terry Abbott. "Our mission is to stamp out homelessness as much as possible. When we renew our federal grant in February, we hope to help even more families in Walton County."
Through the program, the Tews were given a home of their own, where they only pay a portion of the rent. Utilities are covered by Opportunity, Inc.
"The clients don't even see the bills," Abbott said.
The family was given the choice of two homes in DeFuniak Springs. Their final choice, Val said, is the nicest home they’ve lived in since he and Melissa got married nine years ago.
“To me, this is truly a Christmas miracle,” he said. “I have a roof over my kid’s heads, new beds and fridge full of food.”
As the Tews had little to no belongings before moving in, the three-bedroom house was furnished with necessary items, "from beds right down to the toothpaste," Abbot said. Badcock Furniture played a major part in providing the big-ticket items.
While Val is depended on at home, if he were to need full-time employment, the Independent Living Program also helps provide job training working closely with Jobs Plus.
As the family is settling in to their new home, they've already begun to put some personal touches around the house, like framed pictures of the kids and even a string of Christmas lights on their front porch. Inside the home, on a typical Wednesday night, the kids are playing video games in the den while mom and dad tend to the house.
Being rightfully house-proud, Val is constantly cleaning around the home, Melissa said.
Through her experience, Melissa is inspired to pay it forward hoping to one day help other homeless families find their own Christmas miracles.
"My dream is to open a homeless shelter in Walton County — to help the homeless in Walton County — because they're here, but they're afraid of talking about it,” Melissa said.
As the Tew's case manager, Abbott regularly checks in on the family, asking if there's anything they need or want during the holidays, but Melissa refuses. She already has everything she could need.
"I don't need anything else," she said. "I've already got my Christmas present."
HOW TO HELP: The Tews said they could not ask for anything more, but are still without a washer and dryer. What little money they make each month is spent going to the Laundromats. Donations to Opportunity, Inc., supports families such as the Tews in giving them shelter and the chance to turn their lives around. For more information, visit www.okaloosawaltonhomeless.org.