Manatee Habitat fits first vet into home

MANATEE -- For one Manatee County U.S. Army veteran with a lifelong dream of homeownership, a bit of government bureaucracy turned out be a good thing.

"This is like a dream come true," Sgt. Juan C. Garcia told a crowd of 40 during a Manatee County Habitat for Humanity ground-breaking Tuesday.

The ceremony, which will lead to a four-bedroom home by October of this year, was on a grassy lot at 2004 Seventh Ave. W., Palmetto.

Manatee County Habitat for Humanity has built about 118 homes in Manatee County, but this is the first under a new program for veterans, said Diana Shoemaker, Habitat executive director.

As for that bureaucracy: About a year ago, Charlie Bishop, property management department director for Manatee County government, was approached by Wells Fargo Bank to see if the county wanted possession of three foreclosed properties suitable for affordable housing, said Cheri Coryea, director of neighborhood services.

"Wells Fargo wasn't sure who to call and they didn't realize we don't take ownership of residential properties but we work with organizations that do," Coryea said Tuesday.

Manatee County officials, teaming with Wells Fargo and Habitat for Humanity, determined one of the three properties, a roughly one-eighth-acre lot on Seventh Avenue West in

unincorporated Manatee County but near Palmetto would be perfect for a family because it is close to the bus transit station, Palmetto elementary and high schools and Lincoln Middle. The other two properties did not qualify for affordable housing, Coryea said.

This property, to which Garcia will add sweat equity and pay less than $600 per month in mortgage payments, is in a quiet neighborhood with trees a short walk from downtown Palmetto.

"Wells Fargo gets some kudos here for deciding to donate this property," Coryea said. "Now, Wells Fargo is working directly with Habitat for Humanity."

The home costs slightly more than the standard three-bedroom Habitat home, which is about $70,000, and is a model of energy efficiency, said Bruce Winter, director of construction for Habitat.

Garcia joined the Army on Sept. 1, 1998, and saw combat in Iraq in 2006-07. He received a medical honorable discharge Feb. 14, 2009.

He now works for Team Edition, a company that does silk-screening on T-shirts, and is also taking criminal justice courses at State College of Florida and plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in criminology at the University of South Florida, said DiDi Hager, family service manager for Habitat,

Garcia's goal is to become a police officer, Hager said.

Hager held an orientation class in November trying to recruit veterans for Habitat's program.

"I had six to eight come to class, but only a couple submitted applications," Hager said. "Their credit has to be fairly good and we require any uncollected debts to be paid off before we close. And they have to make enough money to afford a mortgage."

"Ever since I left the Army, I wanted to get my own place," said Garcia, whose fiancee, Blanca Gasperin, couldn't stop smiling Tuesday while taking videos of her husband to-be at the ground-breaking.

Many were touched seeing Garcia and Gasperin and their combined family, which will include four children when the home is completed.

"I got emotional," said Patsy Ugarte of Ugarte and Associates, a Palmetto architectural company that donated the architectural plans for Garcia's home.

Ugarte said she was also touched by the all-female color-guard squad sent by the Palmetto Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps for Garcia's event.

"It was the only all-woman squad I have never seen and they were fabulous," Ugarte said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.