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story.lead_photo.caption Natile Walker wipes away tears Wednesday as she stands on the steps of her new home with her family during a home dedication ceremony. The Walkers lost their rental home, cars and personal items in the May 22 tornado and were able to acquire a new home through the River City Habitat for Humanity. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

A Jefferson City community ravaged by the May 22 tornado received a blow and a blessing Wednesday.

It was a day for tears of grief and tears of joy.

On the same afternoon crews demolished Avenue HQ, the first of a number of buildings left uninhabitable by the storm, River City Habitat for Humanity dedicated its first home to a family the storm displaced.

Watching Avenue HQ owner Holly Stitt hold back tears as workers pushed in the walls of her business, was heartbreaking for Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin.

"We knew this day was coming," Tergin said just a few hours later as she watched River City Habitat for Humanity staff dedicate a home at 412 E. Ashley St. "I didn't realize they were going to do it today. My heart was breaking for Holly."

It weighed on Tergin that afternoon, she said.

But the hope Natile and John Walker and their four children radiated as they accepted the keys to their new home helped lift her spirits.

The tornado destroyed the home the family rented just a couple of blocks away, Natile Walker said.

But, she was blessed.

It displaced her family, she said.

But, she was blessed.

The family walked out of their old home — all wearing mismatched shoes, she said.

The tornado caused her to send two children the couple are guardians for to live with Natile Walker's mother in Kansas City, she said.

But, she was blessed.

"Right now, I'm thankful for the tornado," she said. "My life was chaos before the tornado."

But, blessings started coming in the night the family walked out of their old house.

The Walkers have always been the people who helped others and supported their family, friends and neighbors, Natile Walker said.

Immediately after the storm, helpers stepped into their lives, she continued, getting them shoes, clothing and food and finding them places to stay.

And the family connected with Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat doesn't usually handle houses as large as the one at 412 E. Ashley, said Susan Cook-Williams, executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity organization, during the late afternoon dedication ceremony. But a family that received the house in 2009 fell into a bad patch and ended up getting divorced. The six-bedroom house came back to the nonprofit organization.

"We weren't sure what God had planned for the house," Cook-Williams said. "But, after the tornado, we knew we had to act fast because we had a lot of tornado victims who are homeless."

Getting a family into the home was a "whirlwind process," she continued. Ten families said they were interested in the home. Five families actually applied for it.

Then, they called in families for interviews.

The Walker family sat in the Habitat for Humanity office with smiles on their faces and described what they'd gone through.

The local Habitat for Humanity board made its decision.

Within two months of the tornado, the large home's hardwood floors had been refinished. It had a new heating and cooling system. And, extra insulation was added to make it more efficient.

The Walkers were allowed to rent-to-own the building until Wednesday, when the standard Habitat contract to buy could be implemented.

It was the 113th set of keys the organization had turned over to new homeowners.

And, Habitat is preparing to begin construction of two other houses.

Additionally, today, it will begin renovating a house at 809 Jackson St., which had minimal external damage from the storm. However, previous owners had gutted the inside.

That home is to be redone through the Building on Faith program, in which the international organization celebrates its faith partners. The program is usually recognized the third week in September, when groups around the world are encouraged to host building projects and celebrations with their congregational partners.

Instead of working for only a week, River City Habitat for Humanity and partners — First Baptist, First Christian, First Methodist and First Presbyterian churches and the Knights of Columbus — will participate in the program all month long (on Thursdays).

The local Habitat organization intends to work on houses for tornado victims, in addition to its typical four to five houses a year. But, it won't be able to do that without a great deal of help.

Donations and labor will be necessary to conduct those "parallel" builds, Cook-Williams said. To see how to help, call 573-635-8439 or visit

Two of the parallel builds could occur on property that owners recently donated to the organization. Each of the lots at 902 and 914 Jackson St. contains a house that the tornado severely damaged, she said. Both houses will have to be destroyed.

"We're hoping to raise about $150,000 to get started (on the Jackson Street houses)," she said.

People's generosity to the Habitat for Humanity and her family has been indescribable, Natile Walker said.

Because of the urgency to get the family into a home, the Walkers are doing things differently than other Habitat families. Usually, the families have to put sweat equity into the home before they receive it. In the case of the Walkers, the family will have to build the sweat equity following reception of keys, but she's ready to get her hands dirty, Natile Walker said.

"We are blessed with more than we need," she said.

The tornado has somehow changed how Jefferson City looks at the work Habitat for Humanity does, Tergin said.

Not that the city was taking the work for granted, but the tornado shook things up.

"It's even sweeter now, after what we've been through as a community," the mayor said. "Even all the (houses) that came before, we value more. Our perspective is completely different."

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