Courtesy The Beacon News
Article by Justina Wang, staff writer
On her kitchen table, Jacki Walter spread out the photos dated June 9, 2005.
Flipping through them, she laughed -- not arrogantly, but as if she were part of the joke -- at the tacky splatter paint on the walls and the dingy carpet.
When Walter, a 1999 Huntington University graduate, first saw the 95-year-old house on the East Side of Aurora, it had sat vacant for at least a year, and from the look of things, it was painfully clear that few had bothered to take notice.
The windows were boarded up, the siding had been spray-painted, the padlocked doors kicked in, the pipes in the bathroom had burst and the walls showed evidence of extensive water damage.
So when she smiled and said she absolutely wanted the 95-year-old house, the real estate agent warned fervently against it.
Walter fired him.
"Most people would see this house and walk away," she said. "I see potential."
Looking for more
Two years ago, Walter moved from Indiana to take a job as an East Aurora High School social worker. A farm girl from Michigan, she'd never owned her own house before but was determined to live in the community where she worked.
Brushing off talk of the bad reputation of the area, she moved in and laughed to herself when others questioned what a "little white girl" was doing on the block.
At school and throughout the community, Walter started seeing other versions of her house -- depths beyond rough exteriors, opportunities for transformation.
She met Reeshema Coleman, who had just started at East High and was satisfied with her D grades.
"My life was all party," Coleman said.
She met Kim Boyd, whose brother played basketball at a gym where Walter frequented. Boyd was having family problems and ditching classes whenever she felt like it.
"I was kind of one of the rocky students," the teen said.
And through another teacher, she met Jasmine Cott, who was a good student but an unshakable pessimist who was down on her friends and family.
"Everything was crisis," Cott said.
Walter invited them to join her mentoring group, a girls' Christian ministry called Young Life.
Looking for more
After she moved into her house, Walter's father, Jim, traveled from Michigan with some neighbors who were good with construction work.
Jim Walter took a look at the kicked-in doors, the boarded-up windows and grew nervous.
"I didn't wanna leave Jacki here," he said.
Knowing his daughter wasn't one to be swayed when she'd made up her mind, he begrudgingly set to work making repairs. They helped her take out the carpet, paint the walls and put in new doors and 21 windows.
Then, help started coming from all directions.
A friend gave Walter $5,000 for more windows.
A family that she used to baby-sit for gave her a furnace to replace the broken one.
Some neighbors came by, took one look at her stripped floors and came back with a cleaner that made the hardwood shine.
'Really changed my attitude'
Once she convinced the girls to start coming regularly to Young Life meetings, Walter spent the next two years bombarding them with ideas they'd never thought of before.
"She asked me what colleges had I applied to, and I told her none," Boyd said. "Then she just booked these college visits."
"She said that I'm very smart," Coleman said. "And it really changed my attitude a lot about school and life."
"She just sits there and just asks questions and listens and doesn't really talk as much," Cott said. "And then she makes me happy because she's always smiling."
She made it feel like girl talk: They watched movies at her house, had BBQs and makeovers. Young Life, which is now called God's Gym, was a Bible study group, but the thoughts on God often doubled as conversations about life.
"She's someone I can talk to very easy," Coleman said. "She won't put a lot of my secrets out at all."
Walter went with the girls, even those that had never thought of a future after high school, to visit colleges all over the area.
In the summers, she took groups of them, many who had never traveled far outside of Aurora, on trips to New York City, to see the art and culture, and incite their ambitions.
Earlier this month, Coleman, now 18, started classes at the College of DuPage, where she is studying culinary arts.
Boyd, 17, began her senior year at East High, her application to Clark Atlanta University already sent out. She wants to study early childhood education.
Cott, 18, began nursing school at Waubonsee Community College. She's not sure she'll stick with the major, but that's OK.
"Things don't feel as complicated as I used to make them," she said.
'I see such potential'
In Walter's home, little changes were also popping up, as she painted patterns on her fireplace, hung photos of a mission trip to Africa in her study room.
This summer, Walter accidentally ran a lawn mower into her house, and three pieces of siding fell off. Not one prone to discouragement, she simply took this as a sign that the work simply wasn't finished.
So again her father arrived from Michigan, bringing three hard-working neighbors. They spent a week replacing all the old yellow siding. Walter walked around in awe, pointing out one part of the house where half the siding is old and half the siding is new.
That's her favorite side, where you can see the transformation taking place.
"This community is kind of like this house," she said. "I see such potential in it, but it's gonna take a lot of time and effort."
Looking down at the 2-year-old pictures in front of her, she paused.
"I really believe in it," she said, leaving unclear whether she's talking her home or her neighborhood.
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