Three years ago, when Jerry Thigpen's wife, LaToya Thigpen, was losing her battle with diabetes, the couple made a covenant.
As she took her last breath, they agreed he would buy a house.
“She asked me to make a promise to her and one of the promises was to put our kids in a house, in a home,” Thigpen recalled, while holding back tears.
That promise came to fruition a few weeks ago, when he received the keys to a spacious red brick home on Iris Street in Meridian.
Since signing up for the Meridian Housing Authority Homeownership Transition Program in 2016, Thigpen has weathered many trials, including becoming a single father while holding down a full time job.
A Gary, Indiana native, Thigpen met his wife in 2003 while they worked at a chicken plant. They were married a year later, and eventually had two children, Zamiya and Zikevion. His wife already had a daughter, Zaacharia Gordon.
The family's first home was apartment #35 at Western Gardens in Meridian.
Things were good for the family until LaToya Thigpen's diabetes worsened.
Jerry Thigpen said the family's world was flipped upside down, as he became the primary breadwinner for the family.
After his wife died in September 2016, Thigpen decided to keep in contact with the housing authority to take the steps of getting a new home.
The journey from renting to becoming a homeowner was not easy, Thigpen said.
To save money, he walked to his job as a janitor at Meridian Community College instead of driving.
As a single parent he had to make hard decisions between what his children wanted and what the family actually needed.
“A lot of things my kids wanted I couldn’t get at times because I was saving up to purchase a home,” he said. “It was tough, it was a lot of sacrifice.”
Finding self suffiency
The Meridian Housing Authority Homeownership Transition Program was started in 2013 to help public housing residents become homeowners. Ronald Turner, executive director of the MHA, said the program is offered to residents who live at the agency's many public housing properties.
Thigpen is the sixth person to complete the program, and the first black man to become a homeowner through the program.
Shelia Austin, a family self-sufficiency coordinator with MHA, worked with Thigpen to develop a plan to become a homeowner. It took three years to complete the process, she said.
Austin said that in the black community, many people are renters rather than homeowners.
Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that discrepancy.
During the first quarter of 2019, 64 percent of people in the United States owned a home, according to the bureau. Among whites, 73 percent owned a home, while 57 percent of Asians and 47 percent of Hispanics were homeowners. The percentage of black homeowners was 41 percent.
Austin said owning a home is more rewarding than renting, because homeowners have more freedom.
“It becomes yours,” she said.
And she hopes Thigpen's story will help inspire others to realize they can own a home.
“It gives our black community a sense of pride again,” she said.
A brighter future
As his family settles into their new home, Thigpen is optimistic about their future. They've already welcomed a new member to the family – a gray pitbull named Khia – something they could have never had at their small Western Gardens apartment.
Now with a home of his own, Thigpen has plans to build a deck and set up a pool table in the backyard.
And even though the road to owning a home has been challenging, he believes he has not just fulfilled a promise to his wife, but has also realized the American dream.
Thigpen also hopes his story will inspire other men in the community, especially younger black men like his son's friends, to think big.
“Seeing younger people look up to you is a blessing, because you know you have touched a child or somebody in their life," he said.