Homeless to Homebuilder, A San Diego grandmother overcomes life’s hurdles – and pays it forward
May 14, 2019
In 1983, Nelly Velez was literally homeless - living in a van in her hometown of Stratford, Connecticut, with her husband, Carlos, and infant son. Her young family called that van their residence for almost two years.
"Life was really hard," she recalled. "It was a struggle. I remember wrapping my shirt around my son when he was a baby to try to help keep him warm during those cold winter nights."
Life would remain hard for the Velez family for several more years to come. They bounced from government housing to low-income rental apartments in less-than-desirable parts of Stratford just to keep a roof over their heads.
That all changed in 2004 when Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County in Connecticut selected Nelly's family to receive a real home.
"It was a blessing," she said, "because you work hard for it. It's not just given to you."
The family's hard work for Habitat had been invested in "sweat equity" as a form of down payment while they waited to be selected. A full 500 hours of sweat equity, to be exact.
Nelly devoted herself all week to her clerical job. Then she and Carlos would spend all day every Saturday working at Habitat sites, putting in manual labor by framing, painting, plumbing - even bringing friends and family volunteers to help - anything they could do to get their own home. She remembers the excitement she felt getting to pick out cabinets and carpet when it was actually her family's turn to receive.
"It was great. Everything was great - for a while," she said.
Nelly is referring to a time almost a decade later when more trials came her way. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, and only two years later her husband fell terminally ill. They were actually sick at the same time leading up to Carlos passing away in 2014.
"I felt numb. I couldn't believe it was all really happening. I wondered, 'How will I make it going forward?' My husband and I had been together for so long - through the good and the bad - I just didn't know how I could make it on my own."
It was after Carlos passed when Nelly realized she needed a big change. She needed to go somewhere she wouldn't constantly be reminded of her life with Carlos. She needed to heal. She had also lost her job of 10 years in Connecticut in the meantime, so she looked west to California where her now-adult son had relocated.
Packing her bags and leaving her beloved Habitat home to her daughter, Natalie, Nelly launched out to start a new life in San Diego in 2017. And that's when she found Concorde.
A representative from the local unemployment office who was helping Nelly survey her options introduced her to San Diego Campus President, Rachel Saffel. "She was awesome," Nelly said. "Such a kind and helpful person."
She then met Concorde's instructors and learned about the Medical Office Administration (MOA) program. It was a fit with her prior work experience, so she enrolled right away.
"I was a little intimidated because of my age difference. It was my first time in a college setting and parts of me felt like I might not belong there. But there was a lot of encouragement and the faculty was totally invested in my success."
"Nelly has a unique blend of being tender and tough," said Bill Kilby, Concorde's Director of Student Affairs at the San Diego campus. "It seems so cliche to say, but she really is an inspiration. You don't even have to hear her story in great detail to be affected. It warms my heart beyond words!"
Nelly stayed focused on her new career training goals and thrived in the program, even taking on a role in student body leadership in our Lamplighter Student Ambassador program. We were honored to have her on stage as a guest student speaker during her Commencement Ceremony last July, with her children, grandchildren, and late husband's spirit in the audience.
But her success didn't stop there. She got her first job offer directly from the clinical site where she gained her field experience before graduation. Soon after that, she went to work for Care View Medical Group in San Diego handling billing assistance and insurance coding.
Now cancer-free and happy to be in a career she loves, Nelly has arrived at the place in her life where it's time to pay back the investment others have made in her. And she's doing it in the most poignant way of all - by helping build new homes for those who need them as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity of San Diego. She's currently involved with the construction of a new home in the Sherman Heights community.
"I can't think of a better way to pay it forward," she said. "It brings me full circle to the memory of when my husband and I were investing sweat equity in our own home. I'm happy to help someone else start their life!"
"Nelly is absolutely the essence of what we believe safe and decent housing brings to people," said San Diego Habitat for Humanity CEO, Lori Pfeifer. "When you have a home that you can call your own, you can take care of everything else."
And in Nelly's case, you can take care of everyone else.
"I invest tough love in some of the patients who come into my office who are struggling with life," she said. "I know what it's like to be in their shoes. Life has given me the experience to relate.
"But you always have to have hope and to keep hope alive. Don't let anyone tell you that something is impossible. You have the power within you to get through whatever you're facing and to overcome life's obstacles. The only person who can stop you - is YOU."
Nelly's life story and details about her relationship with Habitat for Humanity both as the recipient of a home and now a volunteer builder were recently featured on an installment of the "Inspiring San Diego" segment hosted by news anchor, Monica Dean, on NBC7 in San Diego. The segment aired in December. You can watch her story at nbcsandiego.com